International conference on
ARSENIC IN BANGLADESH GROUND WATER:
THE WORLD'S GREATEST ARSENIC CALAMITY
(February 1999)
A report
by
Shaikh Mizanur Rahman
Organized and sponsored by Bangladesh Chemical and Biological Society
(BCBSNA)-Intronics Technology Center, Dhaka, Bangladesh
February 27-28, Wagner College, New York, USA
 

The conference was attended mostly by the expatriate Bangladeshis. However, the speakers came from various countries of the world, including U.S.A, Canada, Sweden, Singapore, India and Bangladesh (A list of the speakers is presented at the end). I attended the seminar as a concerned Bangladeshi, and to convey appreciation and thanks from BEN and TechBangla.

The air of the conference had been emotionally touchy from the very beginning. Mohammad Alauddin, the conference chair; Kamal Das, the President BCBSNA, and all the opening speakers expressed their deep grief and concern about this recent environmental disaster of cosmic magnitude in terms of human suffering.

The short opening remarks were followed by "Technical Sessions". There were speeches on all aspects of the arsenic disaster, covering from the geomorphologic characteristics of the region to treatment and prevention of the calamity at the village level. The following is
a short account of the knowledge and information that appeared valuable to our cause. I organized the account not according to the sequence of the speeches but on the topics of practical concerns. I would not mention much of the speeches which addressed more academic and technical issues. I might also miss some important practical comments due to my personal error and inadequacy. I must mention that I am neither an arsenic, nor an environmental expert. I hope the speakers and the readers would excuse me for my failures.

I would divide the report into following sections:

1. The Pioneers and the Establishment
2. Health Effects
3. Present Situation
4. Assay and Survey
5. Causes and Prevention
6. Remediation Techniques
7. What is to be Done (personal view)
1. PIONEERS AND THE ESTABLISHMENT

Dr. Shibotosh Roy from Dhaka Community Hospital (DCH) told an illuminating story about the history of the diagnosis of this disaster and how the establishment reacted. Physicians in DCH diagnosed clinically the first case of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh in 1984. However, they did not possess the laboratory facilities to confirm their diagnosis. In that period in Bangladesh arsenic measurement facilities were available only in Atomic Energy Center and BCSIR. When they approached the former, they were told that they have to bring permission from the ministry first and still they would not get the report, the ministry will get it. And both the government organization charged Tk. 1500-2000 for each test. Whereas the cost of arsenic test in world market was as low as $0.06-0.10 per sample. And DCH, a non-profit community service hospital, had to pay our government laboratories hundreds of thousands of takas for only a few arsenic testing. Then DCH physicians contacted Dr. Dipankar Chakraborti at School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University. They agreed to measure it free for DCH.

Even after the confirmatory finding of massive arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh our governmental authorities continued to deny and disregard the calamity and WHO continued to portray it as Dr. Dipankar's brainchild. Under this situation DCH called first national seminar on arsenic poisoning in Dhaka on January 6, 1997. But our
government blamed DCH for creating confusion. It is only after the first international seminar on arsenic in Dhaka on February 8-12, 1998, the establishments stopped denying the problem.

2. HEALTH EFFECTS OF ARSENIC POISOING:

The most deceptive and dangerous aspect of the arsenic toxicosis is its very slow and insidious development. It takes roughly about 10 years of continuous ingestion of arsenic contaminated water (or food) to develop the overt symptoms. The first visible skin lesions are melanosis (dark spots on skin), leuco-melanosis (alternate dark and light spots), followed by keratosis (localized thickening of skin and formation of wart like painful growths), ulcer, gangrene and skin cancer. Dr. Allan Smith, the WHO expert in the Bangladesh region, told that arsenic has definite relation with not only skin cancer, but alsowith lung, liver, kidney and bladder cancer.

Arsenic affects all the systems of the body. Neuropathy starting with burning sensation of the body ultimately leads to lack of sensation and palsy. Terminal patients lose their fingers and parts of the limbs due to gangrene resulting from neuropathy and ulceration, and looks like lepers.

The subscribers of this forum must have known Dr. Bibhudendra Sarkar, whose letter in NYT was republished in our forum on 17 November last year. He was deeply moved by the plight of the arsenic patients, and visited remote villages of Bangladesh twice in his own expense to document the disaster. He also took along with him representative from Discovery Channel (Canada) who later broadcasted the first audiovisual documentary on the issue. I came to know of this documentary through Dr. Sarkars letter to our forum on 30 Nov. 1998. In the conference I have had the opportunity watch the video. Watching the video of the diseased patients and the affected faces of the innocent children were completely a different experience. I am a physician by background and have seen a lot of morbid, terminal patients, yet I could not hold my tears. Those were the most horrible pictures of diseased persons that I can imagine. Only after watching it could I imagine what made a person like Dr. Sarkar, who is neither working on nor directly related to arsenic toxicity, run twice from Canada to Bangladesh to document the calamity.

Dr. Allan Smith also told that Arsenic poisoning has no medical treatment. After stop drinking arsenic contaminated water one can only wait to get it eliminated from the body by normal process of turnover of body chemicals through various excretory systems (I did not hear anything of the exact half-life of arsenic in human body). However, once the keratosis stage is reached the effects are irreversible. Therefore, the first and foremost solution of arsenic poisoning is ARSENIC-FREE-WATER.

3. PRESENT SITUATION OF ARSENIC POISONING

In the studies conducted by joint collaboration of DCH, Dhaka and Jadavpur University, Calcutta, it was found that out of 64 districts 52 have one or more hand-tube-wells containing arsenic above WHO recommended level (0.01 mg/L) and 42 districts above Bangladesh recommended level (0.05 mg/L). The area and population of these 42 districts are 92106 sq.km and 79.9 million respectively. These findings do not mean that all these people are drinking arsenic contaminated water. Actually, in every village there is some tube-wells that are not arsenic contaminated. It was even found that even a tube-well separated from an arsenic contaminated one by only ten feet may not contain arsenic.

However, from hair, nail, skin and urine analysis of the people living in arsenic affected villages it was found that 92% of the samples contain arsenic above the normal value. Thus many may not be showing overt symptoms of arsenical skin lesions, but suffering subclinically. In the arsenic contaminated villages 17% of the children (under 11 years) were intoxicated with arsenic, in contrast 1.7% in West Bengal.

In a very recent survey (December-January, 1998-99) by Jadavpur University and DCH, Bogra was found to be seriously arsenic contaminated, whereas previously no contamination was observed. The bleak picture is that the number of arsenic contaminated wells are increasing each day. Even the wells which were not arsenic contaminated before start pumping arsenic all on a sudden.

4. ASSAY AND SURVEY

I already told about the response of our Atomic Energy Center and BCSIR about arsenic testing. I must tell another story about WHO effort. To measure arsenic, WHO recommended a test-kit prepared by MERCK. And millions of dollars (loan money from World Bank) were used to buy those kits and test the levels of arsenic in various water samples. But the irony was that the kit could detect arsenic with accuracy only down to 100 ppb, whereas WHO recommendation of safe arsenic level is only 10 ppb! Again this story was told by Dr. Dipankar, who has great misgivings about all these donor ands upervisor agencies.

Dr. Allan Smith told that recently NIPSOM developed an arsenic assay kit. The kit can measure arsenic down to 20 ppb (parts per billion, WHO recommended safe limit is 10 ppb, Bangladesh recommended limit is 50 ppb). And WHO certified the NIPSOM kit as the best in the world. I do not have any idea about the cost and other aspects of the kit.

However, according to Dr. Abul Hussam, of George Mason University, Virginia, USA, these field kits are potential health hazards, because they produce very toxic arsine during the test. He recommended that the kit tests should be performed in well ventilated places and the worker should be provided with gas mask to minimize arsenic inhalation.

Bangladesh is seriously deficient in its ability to survey and follow through the arsenic disaster. So far most of the reliable findings were obtained from joint efforts of DCH and Jadavpur University, and in all these studies assays were a favor from Jadavpur University.

Dr. Abul Hussam (above) and Dr. Mohammad Alauddin, of Wagner College, New York, USA, did a great job by introducing modern arsenic measurement facilities in Bangladesh, last year. They set up one lab in Dhaka and another in Kushtia. Now the cost of arsenic assay should be as low as $0.06 per test. This is definitely a great step towards the collection of primary data about arsenic situation. However, so far there are only a few laboratories in Bangladesh that can perform the test, and they are to be performed in centrally located facilities. To follow up the development of a calamity of such a cosmic magnitude we need, I think, at least one test facility in each thana.

5. CAUSES AND PREVENTION

Before attending the conference I heard everywhere of the "pyrite oxidation" theory of arsenic dissolution in ground water. As the water table drops with a gradual development of the drying zone, the theory goes, it causes atmospheric oxygen to diffuse into the pore spaces of the soil/sediment and also into the ground water. The oxygen oxidize the arsenic laden pyrites and converts insoluble arsenic into a form soluble in water.

However, in the conference I came to know of quite an opposite theory. Dr. Prosun Bhattacharya (Groundwater Arsenic Research Group, Division of Land and Water Resources, Royal Insitute of Technology, Sweden) and Dr. Allan H. Welch (US Geological Survey, Carson City, Nevada, USA), both spoke of a theory of REDUCTIVE dissolution of arsenic from iron oxide, rather than oxidative dissolution from pyrite. Direct analysis of various arsenic species in ground water samples from Bangladesh by the group of Dr. Abul Hussam also suggested a very reductive anaerobic aquifer.

The two opposing theories must have to be settled, because preventive or radical remediative measures would depend on them. For example Dr. Prosun Bhattacharya forwarded a radical remediation technique by increasing the oxidation level of the groundwater by artificial recharging with more oxygen and nitrate. This of course would worsen the situation if the problem is due to oxidative dissolution ofpyrites.

Whatever may be the true explanation, the root cause has been unanimously diagnosed as the dropping down of the water table. Again whether this in turn is caused largely by overpumping of groundwater or upstream overuse of Ganges and Brahmaputra was debated. Only Dr. Muhammad A. Miah (Space & Environmental Physics, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, USA) emphasized on the upstream barrages and overuse. Others seemed almost oblivious to this factor. This issue also have a great implication on the preventive solution of the arsenic calamity.

6. REMEDIATION TECHNIQUES

Before listing the arsenic remediation techniques it is essential to look at the problem from a holistic or broad perspective. Otherwise, there remains a chance to lose the ultimate objective and put all energy in a wrong tributary.

It is now generally accepted that underground water (mostly in the depth range of 30 to 100 feet) is the exclusive immediate source of arsenic poisoning. Therefore, the probable logical steps for remediation of arsenic poisoning would be:

A. Radical prevention: Find the cause of arsenic dissolution in underground water and eliminate the cause.

B. Purify the arsenic contaminated water and then use it.

C. Avoid the arsenic contaminated water.

1. Pump water from underground layers not contaminated with arsenic.
2. Avoid underground water altogether. Use over-ground water.
As was discussed in the previous section, there are still a lot of debate about the cause(s) and radical prevention. Arsenic calamity in Bangladesh and West-Bengal is an emergency and we must act NOW on the basis of some proven knowledge. Therefore, I would leave the topic of radical prevention on the experts and researchers; and would report only the strategies listed in B & C above.

I must start with the lament made by Dr. Shibotosh Roy, "Nobody is talking about community based mitigation program. Everybody is talking about filter and filter."

Yes, I remember, the first discussion that I came to experience about solution of arsenic problem was totally concentrated on finding a filter. We get the same picture if we look back at all the discussions in our forum. Whereas, Dr. Dipankar Chakraborty reminded us that Bangladesh is the country, which has got the highest supply of surface water on the earth. Then why should we be so much dependent on underground water ? Why should we have to pump water from underground for irrigating and drinking ? He showed a picture where there is a open lake only about 300 yards away but the farmers are irrigating their paddy field through pumping water by motor propelled deep tube-well. Similarly, he mentioned, Dhaka city has the highest over-ground (surface and rain) water supply in the world, and strikingly its dependency on the underground water is the highest in the world too (95%) ! So, at least to Dr. Chakraborty, the whole problem of arsenic calamity is a PROBLEM OF MANAGEMENT.

So far as the solution is concerned, Dr. Chakraborty said, the role of arsenic removal techniques, including all kinds of filters should be temporary and limited. There should be no reason why a country like Bangladesh can not utilize its immense over-ground water resources.

Regarding the temporary measures he emphasized that he found NOT A SINGLE VILLAGE in Bangladesh or West-Bengal where all the tube-wells are arsenic contaminated. Therefore, for temporary solution he suggested, monitoring of arsenic levels in the safe tube-wells and developing supply from them. It must be reminded that no tube-well, at no depth could be guaranteed safe for ever. It had often been found that a safe tube-well started pumping arsenic all on a sudden, and tube-wells even over a depth of 400 ft. had been found contaminated with arsenic.

In this regards caution and suggestion of Dr. Timir Hore (C & H Environments, Inc., New Jersey, USA) should also be mentioned. He explained how the present system of faulty method of tube-well digging, prevalent in our region, is stressing, bending and breaking the impervious underground tables, resulting in cross contamination. Faulty methods are also resulting in sipping of water along the sides of the tube-wells from one water layer to another. He categorically cautioned that no tube-well should be dug without the knowledge of the underlying strata, and digging tube-wells should be strictly regulated by the government.

Several methods of over-ground water, including rain-water, utilization were mentioned by more than one speakers. However, no detailed planning was presented.

Now, strategy B - the arsenic purification techniques: Common purification techniques mostly involve coagulation/flocculation/filtration. Besides them "high-techs" like ion-exchange, reverse-osmosis, nano-filtration, electrodialysis, etc. also have been mentioned. Dr. Susan Murcott (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.) presented the cost-effectively data of the various purification techniques in a tabulated form . But I was unable to note them down. He referred to the Dainichi Consultant Inc web page too. However, so far I found the web page do not contain such cost-effectivity data. The most attractive of all the processes is probably the precipitation of arsenic by iron filing (elemental or zero valent iron). It appeared to be the least costly method among all, except one mentioned, again, by Dr. Dipankar Chakraborty.

Dr. Chakraborty referred to an old saying "jal bashi kore khao". The rationale behind this saying has been found to be that most of the underground water in Bangladesh region are rich in iron (staining of nails and water pots are a common phenomena in Bangladesh). If given enough time this iron in presence of air combines with arsenic and forms insoluble precipitate, which can be strained/filtered through multi-layer cloth. Dr. Prosun Bhattacharya reported a controlled study which indeed demonstrated reducing of arsenic from 92-120 ppb down to 23-36 ppb in 15 days. However, the results vary depending on the iron content and other hydrochemical characteristics of the specific underground water.

As one step upgrading of this technique, Dr. Murcott demonstrated in the auditorium an iron precipitation method. She took a jar of arsenic contaminated water and added some ferrous salt in it (again I failed to note what specific compound was it), then shake it for a couple of minutes to aerate it (actually she engaged her husband to shake it for her). Then the bottle was passed to the audience. We could see some flocculant precipitate. She claimed it to be the iron-arsenic compound :).

In favor of the suitablity of her method, Dr. Murcott told that Nepalese peasant women told her that they do not want anybody else to control their water. They want to control it on their own, individually. Dr. Murcott found this attitude very rational, appropriate and quite understandable from the western value.

However, it appears to be a common sense that to be cost-effective the purification process should be done in a mass scale. Two mass scale arsenic purifying techniques were presented in the conference. The one by Dr. Arup K. Sengupta (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Lehigh University, Bethelhem, Pennsylvania, USA) involved precipitation and elimination of arsenic through activated alumina filterbed. The filter can be fitted to a tube-well and can purify arsenic effectively for 10-15 years, supplying about 200-300 families throughout the period. The cost of each unit is $1500. Dr. SenGupta also mentioned that for humanitarian grounds the device was not patented. He also offered that if $750 could be raised anywhere he/his institute would compensate the rest. Immediately, Dr. Alauddin announced that BCBSNA, the conference host, would donate $750 for a filter to be installed in Bangladesh. The appropriate site would be selected by Dr. Dipanaka Chakraborty. It was appreciated with applause.

The cost of the above filter appeared too much to me. In contrast, the device based on precipitation by iron-filing and presented by Mr. Jeffrey A. Lackovic, (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Connecticut, Stoors, Connecticut, USA.) appeared to be much cheaper. It can treat 14000 liter/dollar. It's patent is pending. However, Dr. Chakraborty expressed his surprise that how could such an old technology could be patented.

It appeared that so far as remediation of arsenic calamity is concerned the technologies are known and available; both with respect to managing alternative water resources and arsenic purification. The task is to mobilize the resources and communicating the people.

And of course "the ultimate solution must lie on holistic water resource management."

 

WHAT IS TO BE DONE (personal view)

The heading appears authoritative. However, I must make it clear thatI am no authority on this issue, nothing more than an educated layman.I chose the heading, because this was the most important goal of the conference and would be the ultimate goal of our discussion in this forum. The following is just my preliminary, tentative, personal view to start the discussion with.

Solution of any such problem would involve following steps:

1. Discovering and unfolding the nature of the problem - basic research.

2. Inventing technological solutions in the research lab - applied research.

3. Transfer the technology to industry or commercial organizations, and/or

4. Educate and mobilize the political leaders and the government, and/or

5. Educate and mobilize the people.

As I mentioned in the previous section, that solution of the arsenicc calamity is well beyond the 1st and 2nd stage. We know that:
1. Utilization of the over-ground water resources is our most prospective bet.

2. If we continue to use underground water from the safe tube-wells,then also we need extensive country-wide arsenic monitoring system.

3. If we have to continue to use underground water from the arsenic contaminated tube-wells then we need purification procedures. And both handy personalized purification procedures and the principle and technology of large scale filters are known.

Notable that implementation of all of the above involves organization and mobilization at the socio-political and community level. None of them are really a technological challenge. However, the most ironical thing of the conference was that there was no speaker, not even any audience from political, social or community leadership from Bangladesh. And of course the very site - Wagner College, New York -precludes any participation from community level from Bangladesh.Moreover, in the conference a lot of time was spent in technical details and arguments. There was not a single presentation onover-ground water management, which are probably technologically"unattractive". Even, there was no specific recommendation of appropriate arsenic remediation technologies from the conference. The experts were divided on their emphasis as in any TV show.

However, the conference was very useful in developing my personal awareness. And one of the most important thing I learned from the conference is that Bangladesh needs no more of this kind of purely technical conference for the solution of itís arsenic calamity. What we need to do are:

1. Establish country-wide arsenic monitoring system. In this effort, considering their pioneering role in setting up of arsenic assay methods in Bangladesh, Dr. Mohammad Alauddin and Dr. Abul Hussamshould be included as the chief experts. We certainly do not need to spend our WB loan money on WB experts or any "foreign experts" for arsenic mitigation.

2. Make the mass people aware of arsenicosis, its prevention and precautions against it.

3. Promote drinking boiled surface water or water only from safe tube-wells as a temporary measure.

4. Develop supply line for each village from the safe tube-wells, asa temporary measure.

5. Put limited and regulated emphasis on purification of arsenic contaminated water as another temporary measure. I would vote for,precipitation by ferrous salts (as demonstrated by Dr. Murcott) as the personalized procedure, and filtration through iron-filing(Lackovicís procedure) as large scale procedure for arsenic purification.

One point must be noted here that industrial production, marketing and selling is a source of BIG PROFIT. Whereas, community based over-ground water-management programs are not. I am afraid rapid and successful marketing of filters would make the whole nation dependent on it and people would fall into an inertia and would not take further initiative to change the established system of dependency on underground water. Please remember what the "big three" auto-makers did on the transport system in the USA. So, I am very much against the "free market" policy in this regards. The production, distribution, selling and buying of filters should be strictly regulated by the governmental and/or social agencies.
6. Immediately stop digging any tube-well without proper geological survey and approval from environmental authority. Close and seal allarsenic contaminated wells to prevent cross contamination of watert ables through leakage along the wells.

7. Study and research should immediately be started on thecost-effectivity of various community based over-ground water management system. Test implementation of prospective systems should also be started immediately.

8. General water quality monitoring and management system should be developed in conjunction with management of arsenic in water.

9. Grass roots program should be taken to raise the awareness about the value of environment, its delicate balance and peoples responsibilities, so that this kind of disasters are not repeated. Science and social-studies text books from Class V to Xmust contain a chapter on environment. All other media for mass communication must be used as well.

However, the question is, who are going to do these things for the people ? The government certainly has a very significant role here in regard to regulating, educating, providing funds and mobilizing people. The government in our country holds tremendous power, it is the receiver of most of the international donations andloans, but do not really have to account to the people. On the other hand the western donors, IMF, WB, etc. are out there to make somemore money from the donated and loaned money. The situation is much very complex. Therefore, I do not find any straight way. Those of us who think ourselves as educated, conscious and responsible, should make the people aware, mobilize the resources and lead the people to ac tfor themselves. And at the same time organize the people to put pressure on the government, make it accountable to the people and force it to do what the people want it to do.

Now, what BEN can do ? I think, BEN is still mostly an expatriate dependent organization. It does not have enough connection at the community level. To help in the development of "community based arsenic mitigation program" BEN alone or in conjuction with other sister organizations must reach the community.

[This ends my reporting on the conference. However, I am waiting for the final resolution report from the conference organizers. I would mail it to the forum as soon as I get it. I also requested them to send one directly to BEN. ]

Thank you all.

Sincerely

Shaikh Mizan
Athens, Georgia

______________________________________________________________

THE SPEAKERS:

Mohammad Alauddin, Wagner College, New York, USA.

Prasanta Bhattacharya, Groundwater Arsenic Research Group, Royal
Insitute of Technology, Sweden.

Dipankar Chakraborti, School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur
University, Calcutta, India.

E. Ewald, Waterhealth International, Napa, California, USA

Gourishankar Ghosh, UNICEF, New York, USA.

Timur Horre, C & H Environments, Inc., New Jersey, USA.

F. Hossain, Department of Civil Engineering, The National University
of Singapore, Singapore.

M. T. Hussain, Kansas Department of Health & Environment, Wichita,Kansas, USA.

Abul Hussam, George Mason University, Virginia, USA.

A. H. Khan University of Dhaka, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

J. A. Lackovic, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering,
University of Connecticut, Stoors, Connecticut, USA.

M. A. Miah, Space and Environmental Physics, University of Arkansas at
Pine Bluff, Arkansas, USA.

Susan Murcott, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge,
Massachusetts, USA.

D. Rahman, Intronics Technology Center, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Shibotosh Roy, Community Hospital Trust, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Bibhudendra Sarkar, Head, Structural Biology and Biochemistry,
Hospital for Sick Children, University of Toronto, Canada.

Arun Sengupta, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering,
Lehigh University, Bethelhem, Pennsylvania, USA.

Allan H. Smith, School of Public Health, University of California,
Berkeley, California, USA; & WHO consultant on arsenic calamity inSouth Asia.

M. Stute, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University,
School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Queens College, CUNY.

Alan Welch, US Geological Survey, Carson City, Nevada, USA.

THE TECHNICAL SESSIONS & THE CHAIRS

Technical Session I: Arsenic Calamity in Bangladesh, Health Effects of
Arsenic, Chair: Mohammad Alauddin, Wagner College, New York, USA.

Technical Session II: Analytical Aspects of Arsenic Measurements,
Chair: Abul Hussam, George Mason University, Virginia, USA.

Technical Session III: Geochemistry of Arsenic, Remediation
Techniques, Chair: Fakhruddin Ahmed, American Cyanamid Co., NewJersey, USA.

Panel Discussion (for Sessions I, II & III), Chair: Quamrul Ahsan,
Advanced Analytical Technologies, New Jersey, USA; & Fahim Ahmed, Key
Chemical Co., North Carolina, USA.