Arsenic in Bangladesh Drinking Water ? A Catastrophe!!!

A seminar/panel discussion was held in Los Angeles on October 16, 1999 to raise awareness among non-resident Bangladeshis (NRBfs) on this critical issue. It was held at Loyola Marymount University (LMU). Professor Allan H. Smith of University of California at Berkeley, Professor Janet G. Hering, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering Science at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, and Dr. Sabir A. Majumdar, Advisor to Bangladesh Chemical & Biological Society of North America participated. The event was held under the auspices of the AABEA (American Association of Bangladeshi Engineers & Architects) Southern California Chapter.

Dr. Ahmed Badruzzaman, the organizer of the event, and Chairperson of the Technology Advisory Committee of the AABEA Southern California Chapter, presided. Over seventy NRBfs, including engineers, scientists, businesspersons, and spouses of many of them attended. The Consul General of Bangladesh in Los Angeles, Mr. Mohammed Farooq, was a special guest.

Professor Smith who holds both MD and Ph. D degrees is a world-renowned epidemiologist and perhaps the worldfs foremost expert on arsenic-caused diseases. He has visited Bangladesh five times as an advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO). Professor Hering is a leading expert on causes of arsenic contamination of ground water and has done comparative studies of arsenic in Sierra Nevada region of the US and the Ganges Brahmaputra Delta. She has also visited Bangladesh. Dr. Majumdar is a chemist who has been active on the issue of arsenic contamination of Bangladesh tube well water. He took a leading role at the very successful international conference organized by the Bangladesh Chemical and Biological Society of North America in New York in February of this year on this issue.


The seminar portion of the event began with a brief introduction by Mr. Mohammed Iqbal, the General Secretary of the AABEA Southern California Chapter. The Chairperson, Dr. Badruzzaman, opened the discussions by posing four points of focus:

  1. What are the extent and severity of the problem in Bangladesh?
  2. Why this happened?
  3. How can this be addressed?
  4. How can non-resident Bangladeshifs (NRBfs) help?
He then introduced each speaker.

Professor Smith first showed a video tape on arsenic disaster in Bangladesh broadcast recently in the US by the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS) news magazine program, 60 Minutes. Professor Smith opened his remarks by reiterating that arsenic in Bangladesh drinking water is the worst manmade chemical calamity in human history. It far exceeds any previous disasters such as the 1984 incident at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Lives of millions of people are at stake here. He commented that arsenic poisoning is not new and contamination of drinking water had occurred elsewhere. In Bangladesh, a well-meaning program to provide safe drinking water had caused this huge tragedy. Previously, thousands of people were dying from drinking germ-laden surface water from ponds and rivers.

Professor Smith discussed the results of his studies of arsenic-caused diseases in many parts of the world including Argentina, Chile, and West Bengal. His results showed a strong cause and effect relationship between drinking arsenic-contaminated water and incidences of lung, liver and bladder cancers. He showed that in a region of Chile females exposed to arsenic 30-40 years earlier, as children, are exhibiting 60 times higher mortality from respiratory diseases than normal. Skin cancers also appear later in life. He then showed photographs of people in West Bengal and Bangladesh with ghastly crusts on their palms and feet, skin lesions, and cancers. The audience appeared numb from these pictures and sat in stunned silence.

Dr. Smith remarked that discontinuation of drinking the arsenic-contaminated water and finding alternate sources of drinking water were the key to addressing this problem. However, ongoing monitoring of wells and continuous education were essential, he commented.

In her remarks Dr. Hering reminded that arsenic is present in water system in many parts of the world including Los Angeles. She discussed the various mechanisms, by which arsenic can be released to a water system, ranging from volcanic activity to mining to geological. In the water supply of the City of Los Angeles, arsenic of volcanic origin enters surface water through the input of geothermal water. In the San Joaquin Valley of California and the Ganges Brahmaputra Delta leaching of alluvial sediments has resulted increased levels of arsenic in the water supply. Her data showed that there was variation in the level of arsenic with depth in the ground but not horizontally.

Professor Hering then told the audience that several technologies are already available to treat the water. Perhaps, the most important point she made was that simplicity of operation and maintenance of a treatment technology are key for a successful water treatment in a developing country like Bangladesh. A central water treatment facility will be unfeasible in rural areas and an in-home water treatment is much more appropriate there. She also remarked that there was no single remedy. The issue needs to be addressed in each village depending on the situation there. In view of the emergency faced by Bangladesh. Dr. Hering recommended a rapid implementation of a reasonably appropriate water treatment technology in the short-term even if it is not the most sophisticated one. Over longer term one can switch to more advanced technologies. She contended that the alternative of boiling arsenic-free surface water, proposed often, would not be a feasible alternative on a large scale. It takes at least ten minutes of boiling to eliminate disease-causing germs; the fuel cost to achieve this will be prohibitive.

Dr. Majumdar began his presentation by identifying the worst affected areas such as Madaripur, Noakhali, Lakxmipur, Sylhet, and Comilla region, especially his native Chandpur. By latest counts, over 42 districts and perhaps as many as 59 out of 64 districts are affected. The problem is less severe in North Bengal. He informed the audience that a 50 parts per billion (ppb) maximum permissible limit (MPL) of arsenic concentration in drinking water is allowed in many countries including Bangladesh and the US. However, the WHO recommends a 10 ppb and US congress has asked the US government to come up with a new standard, which will probably be close to the WHO standard. He showed data that indicated that primarily the shallow tube wells (less than 100 meters deep) are affected, although in a few cases wells below 300 meters had arsenic above acceptable levels.

Dr. Majumdar reminded the audience that the program to sink tube wells to tap underground water in Bangladesh arose from a well-intentioned program initiated by the UNICEF to provide disease?free drinking water. Currently, there were more than four million tube wells in the country. Surveys to date have shown that nearly 35% of these wells are contaminated and over 22 million people are affected. Studies have shown that arsenic in the tube well water is of geological origin. Release of arsenic from iron compounds was the most likely cause.

Dr. Majumdar considered two main approaches to address the problem. One would be tapping sources of arsenic-free water. Nearly 60% of the shallow tube wells were arsenic free. Also, the water in upper part of the contaminated shallow aquifer was relatively arsenic-free. Perhaps, accessing the water at those depths would be an option. Using deep tube wells was another option although cross contamination from the shallow aquifer must be avoided. Use of arsenic-free surface water may be another option. However, this water contains pathogens and must be treated. Rainwater harvesting has been done in Thailand but is not as simple as it sounds.

The second approach to address the problem would be to treat the arsenic-contaminated water by various physical-chemical filtration processes proposed. Some would be more appropriate than others. For example, using Alum with bleaching powder would be very effective in removing both major types of arsenic that arises. Techniques such as reverse osmosis, proposed recently, would be too complicated and would not be cost-effective. However, all filtration techniques will leave behind a sludge that will have to be disposed of and that may cause its own problem. He remarked that microbiological techniques, using bacteria to provide oxidizing environment to the water, might be a long-term solution in Bangladesh.

He then suggested a few roles for expatriate Bangladeshis. These included participation in mass awareness, especially in the villages or towns they came from, information dissemination, and helping to develop sustainable, community-based projects for safe drinking water. Of course, providing funds always help he remarked.

Following formal presentations, Mr. Asad Haque, the President of AABEA Southern California Chapter presented the three speakers with plaques of appreciation from the AABEA. He also thanked the organizer and the sponsors of the event.

Panel Discussion:

Following a short break after the nearly two-hour formal presentations, the three speakers participated in a lively panel discussion moderated by Dr. Badruzzaman. The audience asked the panelists many questions. From these questions the following points emerged.

  1. There are no known cures for arsenic related diseases.
  2. Exposure is measured in urine.
  3. Past exposure cannot be identified or measured.
  4. Arsenic is excreted from the body rapidly. So stopping exposure to is the best solution.
  5. Boiling of arsenic contaminated water will concentrate the arsenic and make the situation worse. Do not use arsenic-contaminated water for cooking.
  6. Mixing alum with bleaching powder will remove both types of arsenic present.
  7. Bacteria-based method has been demonstrated in Australia but can only be a long-term solution.
  8. There is no evidence that use of fertilizer or reduced water flow due to the Farakkah Barrage contributed to this problem.
  9. Exposure to arsenic through the food chain, for example using arsenic-contaminated water, is unproven. Drinking the water is the overwhelming cause of human exposure.
In answering persistent questions on causes of contamination, Professor Smith remarked that in an emergency such as this looking for causes is far less important than eliminating exposure and saving lives. This is no time for more research on causes, he suggested. These were reasonably well understood. The problem must be addressed now. All wells must be tested, shut off if necessary, and appropriate treatment programs designed.

Dr. Hering reiterated that a central treatment plant would be problematic in rural areas and in-home devices would be more appropriate. She commented that the worst thing would be doing nothing while searching for the perfect solution.

In this context Dr. Smith also commented that we should not focus too strictly on meeting the maximum permissible limit of 50 ppb or WHOfs 10 ppb. Begin by implementing treatment where it is most needed. Go to each village, look at the high exposure areas, and develop a prioritized intervention program. In answering a question on recent reports of tests on mice to reverse some of the biological effects of arsenic using mustard oil and garlic extracts, the panelists were skeptical.

On the issue of testing the water, Dr. Majumdar commented that there are laboratory tests that are very accurate but are slow, while field tests are quick but less accurate. Most new kits will pick up concentrations above 100 ppb, somewhat above the MPL. But each kit costs less than a dollar and will be able to identify the most seriously contaminated areas. In answer to a question on deep tube wells, the panelists remarked that these would cost 30% more than a shallow well and would have to be monitored yearly.

Professor Smith remarked that an organization like the AABEA could help by providing technology and funds. Dr. Majumdar commented that several non-governmental organizations (NGOfs) are active on this problem in Bangladesh and would welcome the help. Mrs. Meera Smith, the wife of Dr. Smith and a researcher herself, who was in the audience commented that she has been working with Probashi, an organization of expatriate Bengalis from West Bengal to raise funds. She urged everyone to go and see the situation for himself/herself. Dr. Badruzzaman remarked that perhaps, AABEA could help with buying more field kits. Others suggested that AABEA should sponsor drilling of deep tube wells.

Addressing a question on other industrial contaminants such as mercury and lead being released in Bangladesh, the panelists remarked that while it is good to look at all contaminants, arsenic contamination of Bangladesh drinking water is by far the worst calamity in history from exposure to a chemical substance. Dr. Smith urged the audience to remember that other instances of chemical contamination pale in magnitude compared to this tragedy. It is imperative that we attend to this urgently.

In answering the final question on what would be wrong if we did nothing, Dr. Smith stated that such an approach would be counterproductive and quite inappropriate. It is a quality of life issue for us all. Dr. Majumdar commented that if we did nothing the whole nation would be crippled before too long. Is that what we want?

The Consul General, Mr. Farooq made a strong plea to the experts and the expatriates to help Bangladesh, a poor country with limited resources, with ideas and technical know-how in solving this problem.

The event began at noon under a gorgeous Southern California sky with a lunch on the lawn of the engineering building of Loyola Marymount University. It was sponsored by Ms. Tahmina Badruzzaman, an Agent of New York Life Insurance Co., and Dr. Hebab Quazi, President of MARTECH International. Both are also AABEA members.

In closing, the Chairperson thanked the speakers for the excellent information on the chilling extent, likely causes, and possible ways to face this catastrophe that he hoped would spur the NRBfs to action. Afterwards several attendees commented that they had no idea of the magnitude of the problem and urged the development of a plan of action for NRBfs. Many indicated their willingness to contribute. The organizers promised to follow-up with a plan of action.

Summary prepared by Ahmed Badruzzaman, AABEA Southern California Chapter. For further information please contact at (925) 842-1043/(714) 280-0837 or

Acknowledgements: Mr. Asad Haque and Mr. Mohammed Iqbal, President and General Secretary of AABEA Southern California Chapter, and Professor Nazmul Ula of LMU for the arrangements.

ALOCHONA - A Bangladeshi/Bengali Internet group and BEN- Bangladesh Environmental Network for publicizing the event outside the AABEA.