ARSENIC DISASTER IN BANGLADESH-AN URGENT CALL TO SAVE A NATION
Thomas E. Bridge Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus(Geology), Emporia State University, Emporia
and
Meer T. Husain
Environmental Geologist, Kansas Department of Health & Environment, Wichita, Kansas.
Abstract

Bangladesh is located on the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Delta and has one of the greatest population densities of any country in the world. The people won their independence from Pakistan in 1971.

During the past thirty years millions of people have lost their lives in the many hazards that are common to the area. An attempt to eliminate one of the hazards, disease caused by drinking polluted surface water, millions of shallow surface wells were drilled into the delta alluvium. These wells were or have become contaminated with arsenic. Millions of people drinking water from these contaminated wells are showing the symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Immediate steps must be taken to identify those areas affected by arsenic contaminated water and then supply fresh potable water to the people in those areas.

A research proposal will be submitted to map the contaminated waters of the regions affected, find the source of the contamination, and establish a system of water management for all the people of Bangladesh that assures a continuing supply of safe water for domestic use.
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Bangladesh is a nation of over 120 million with a geographical area of 52, 000 square miles or about 2,308 people per square mile. Bangladesh is about the size of the state of Wisconsin USA. The average annual per capita income in US dollars is $170.00 with wide disparities in income distribution. An estimated fifty- five percent (55%) of the population is below the poverty level. The over all literacy rate is below 30%. Bangladesh is almost entirely on the intertwined delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. These rivers and the annual monsoon rains combined with the fertile soils of the delta make Bangladesh a bread basket for its people. The low lying delta also carries the potential danger of flooding during heavy monsoon rains. Cyclonic storms surge upstream from the bay of Bengal and provide an additional hazard to the people living on this low lying delta. When the monsoons fail the rivers run low and drought creates famine which takes its toll on the people that live this very fertile alluvial plain.

In 1971, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan at a cost of 3.5 million people and freedom fighters who risked or lost their lives to gain their freedom. Located in one of the most hazardous areas of the world, ravine floods, cyclones, tornadoes, droughts and earthquakes are common phenomena. In the interval (1960 to 1998) about 6.5 million people died by one or more of these natural hazards and associated famine and epidemics.

The present Bangladesh calamity is caused by mass poisoning from arsenic in groundwater. Presently about 60 million people are drinking and using water contaminated with arsenic that is above the safe maximum level of (>50 ppb.). Before 1970 about 35 million people of Bangladesh depended on highly polluted surface water. To avoid using polluted surface water, foreign and local firms and villagers of Bangladesh with the assistance of World Bank and UNICEF installed about 4 million shallow tube wells. Presently about 116 million people depend on water from these tube-wells for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing.

Contamination of the groundwater by arsenic was discovered in 1994 by the Dhaka Community Hospital and NIPSOM in the western areas of Bangladesh. Since 1994, the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) with the assistance of WHO/UNICEF/DFID collected and analyzed 31,651 well water samples. The DPHE recently indicated that about 59 out of 64 districts have been affected by arsenic contamination. The known contamination covers almost 60% of total country area. Today many people in Bangladesh and the neighboring Indian state of west Bengal show one or more advanced signs of arsenic poisoning such as ulcers or skin lesions on their hands and feet.

During 1998 under "A Rapid Action Program," 200 out of 60,000 villages were surveyed for arsenic poisoning by Dhaka Community Hospital and Jadavpur University of Calcutta, India. They found arsenic concentrations above 50 ppb. They also diagnosed severe arsenic poisoning among the people drinking contaminated tube-well water They estimated about 50% of all the wells in the country exceeded the safe maximum contaminant level. According to the recent report of UNDP, 40% of all wells are contaminated by arsenic.

The description of the nature of arsenic toxicity:
1) Arsenic compounds are known carcinogens.
2) Amount of arsenic intake required to cause harmful effect depends on the chemical and physical form of arsenic.
3) Inorganic forms of arsenic are more toxic than organic forms.
4) People are more sensitive to arsenic than animals.
5) Medical tests demonstrate a variation in contamination among individuals: Some can ingest over 150 µg/kg/day without apparent ill-effects. Sensitive individuals can be affected at 20 µg/kg/day (1000-1500 µg/kg/day for adults).
6) Doses of 600-700 µg/kg/day (around 50,000 µg/kg/day for adults; 3,000 µg/kg/day for infants) have caused death in some cases.
7) Maximum Acceptability of Arsenic Concentration in Drinking Water: The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of arsenic set as 20 µg/L. Many scientists view this amount above the acceptable threshold. There is growing support in favor of lowering this to -- 10 µg/L that is equal to the WHO approved limit.

They also described the usual symptoms of arsenicosis :

The symptoms of arsenic toxicity may develop over a lengthy period of time often taking up to 8-14 years from the initial days of contamination. This period differs from individual to individual depending on the quantity of arsenic to volume of water ingested, immunity level of the individual and the total time-period of actual arsenic ingestion.

The two following diseases are common indicators of arsenic poisoning.

1. Melanosis - Melanosis results in the gradual change of complexions towards blackishness and or duskiness. Generally, the limbs are first affected and subsequently the change affects all of the body. In the process of melanosis, white and black spots occur over the body, medically termed as ‘spotted melanosis, and this stage of melanosis is generally a pre cursor of cancer.

2. Keratosis - Initial stages of Keratosis witnesses the hardening hand palms and footsoles. In medical terms, this hardening is ‘diffuse keratosis’ and may gradually lead to gangrenous ulcer. Physicians often relate this kind of ulcer to a pre-cancerous stage. Gangrenous ulcer has the potential of turning into skin cancer, such as squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. If the gangrene or ulcer affects the limbs, amputation is the final remedy. Worst cases of keratosis may result in wart-like seeds growing on palms and soles. These seeds (tumors) are commonly referred to as ‘spotted keratosis’. Other relatively minor symptoms might be evident such as, physical weakness, burning sensation, constant warm feeling, chronic cough, etc.

Relevant information obtained from ‘Arsenic Pollution in Groundwater of Bangladesh,’ Dhaka Community Hospital (DCH) Trust, September 1997:

A number of common social problems arise out of arsenic contamination:

Some of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning are mistaken for more lethal disease such as skin cancer or leprosy. This mistaken identity often leads to quarantining. Those affected are often refused water from the neighboring tubewells. The affected are either avoided or discouraged to appear in public. Affected children are often barred from attending schools and adults discouraged from attending offices, visit medical professionals in the hospital, etc. Those affected with a higher level of contamination are considered incapable of working and hence victimized by growing poverty. Young women affected by the contamination are often compelled to stay unmarried. Married women affected by arsenic are sent back to their parents with children. Contamination in one could potentially affect the lives of both the couples in a given family. Eligible persons are refused jobs when found suffering from arsenicosis.

Arsenic is both carcinogenic and mutagenic. Thousands of arsenic impacted patients have already been identified. If the people of Bangladesh continue to use the arsenic contaminated water for their daily requirement, irrigation and industries, tens of millions will lose their health or die within a few decades. Those who will survive are in danger of carrying genetic diseases to future generation.

There are thousands of feet of old buried river channels and their associated floodplain deposits. Many of these old buried channels contain potable water. In order to save lives of millions of arsenic affected people and those jeopardized by arsenic contamination, an "Emergency Clean Water Supply Plan" needs to be developed and implemented within a short time. Potable water for domestic use should be obtained from a reliable sources and delivered to the population as a government service. Before any aquifer is used to supply water the water must be thoroughly analyzed. According to the 1955 Year Book Of Agriculture: Prophet Mohammed saw water as an object of religious charity. He declared that free access to water was the right of every Muslim community and that no Muslim should want for it. The precept of the Holy Koran, "No one can refuse surplus water without sinning against Allah and against Man," was the cornerstone of a whole body of social traditions and of regulations governing the ownership, use, and protection of water supplies. All persons who shared rights to a watercourse were held responsible for its maintenance and cleaning. The whole community was responsible for the care of large watercourses.

One or more of the following measures should be implemented, depending on cost effectiveness, availability and ease of water distribution.

1. Extraction and distribution of arsenic free groundwater from deep aquifers.
2. Removal of contaminants in water at existing well sites.
3. Collect, filter, and chlorinate rain or surface water.

A comprehensive research plan should be developed to determine the geological, hydrogeological and geochemical factors that are controlling the chemical reactions generating and releasing arsenic to groundwater. Determine the source(s) and nature of contaminants, how they are mobilized, direction of movement, and transport mechanism. Evaluate the potential risk of each contaminant to human health and the environment. Determine the vertical and horizontal extent of arsenic contamination in both soil and groundwater. The information gained from this research should be used to implement a comprehensive water distribution and monitoring plan to provide good water and prevent future contamination disasters.

The situation is so serious that emendate steps should be taken to find and deliver enough potable water to all seriously affected areas for drinking and cooking. Bangladesh has an abundance of water. This water is the life blood of the nation. The people need a project to protect the quality of water and provide good potable water to all. Local water districts should be established in highly contaminated areas. A non-polluted water source should be developed and the water delivered through environmentally safe plastic pipe for domestic drinking and cooking purposes. In areas of low contamination, a team of trained local citizens should be given custody of local underground water supplies and charged with periodic chemical monitoring of the water to detect any future contamination. Foods grown in soil with high concentrations of arsenic should be examined to determine levels of arsenic absorbed by the plants and those plants that absorb arsenic eliminated from the diet in that area.

Bangladesh is known to be one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world. Between 40 and 45 million people out of a rural population of 80 million live below the poverty line; of these, around 20 million are in extreme poverty. The rapidly growing ranks of the urban poor are adding to these numbers. The country does not have enough economic resources, expertise, and technological know-how to solve the ground water arsenic contamination problem on its own. Funds and expertise are desperately needed. Environmental experts, and fund donations from the United Nations, individual countries, donor organizations, agencies, and individuals are needed now to save the lives of millions of people affected by deadly arsenic. A way to provide safe water to millions of people in areas affected by the ground water arsenic contamination must be found.

References:

1.  Husain,M.T., and Schroeder,D.C.,1996, Geochemistry of Nitrate in Groundwater in Kansas, 128th Annual Meeting, Kansa Academy of Science(KAS), Emporia, Kansas, USA.

2. Miah, F.,1998, In quest of safe water for rural Bangladesh, DCH intl. Arsenic Conf, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

3. Harvard Arsenic project-Study and remediation of Chronic Arsenic poisoning, USA.

4. DCH Trust, 1997, Arsenic pollution in groundwater of Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

5. Hem,J.D.,1959, Study and Interpretation of chemical characteristics of natural water, Geological Survey water supply paper 1473, USA.

6. USEPA, 1985, Protection of Public Water Supplies from Groundwater Contamination, Center for Environmental Research Information, Cincinati, Ohio, USA.

7. Alexander,D.,1995, Changing Perspectives on Natural Hazards in Bangladesh, Natural Hazards Observer, Vol. XX, No-1, Colorado, USA.

8. USDA, 1955, Water-The Yearbook of Agriculture, 84th congress, 1st session, House Document no.32, USA.

9. USEPA, 1985, Remedial Action at Waste Disposal Sites(revised), USA.