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Clean water is often taken for granted despite growing evidence that it is threatened in many parts of the world by either environmental contamination and/or socioeconomic problems, such as poverty, which often tend to go hand in hand. Arsenic contaminated ground water used for drinking and cooking is commonplace in many parts of Bangladesh. Like other chemical elements known to be poisonous to humans, arsenic is tolerated to some degree, but beyond certain thresholds ingesting arsenic is toxic leading to risk of disease and death.
Arsenic contaminated groundwater currently threatens the health of 70 million people in 61 of 64 districts in Bangladesh. Many people living in districts plagued with arsenic contaminated ground water regularly drink water with concentrations of arsenic far above national and WHO standards. An important study from Prof Peter Atkins and Dr Manzurul Hassan explores how groundwater arsenic concentration varies throughout areas of southwest Bangladesh. Understanding the scale of arsenic contamination, the complex processes that lead to arsenic in groundwater and how arsenic spreads over time is currently needed to reduce arsenic-related health risks. The study reveals a highly uneven spatial pattern of arsenic concentrations that can inform government policy for addressing where high levels of arsenic contamination occur in order to mitigate arsenic poisoning, a health and social hazard. 358 of the 375 tubewells sampled in the study had concentrations of arsenic of at least .05 mg/L and only 17 of the tubewells (4.50 percent) sampled are considered arsenic-safe. This is a large health concern for people living in areas of Bangladesh where the only source of water they have is contaminated with arsenic that is either above or well above the WHO standard (<0.01 mg/L), but also the limit set by the government of Bangladesh (0.05 mg/L). Read more
Could nanotechnology provide a solution to Bangladesh’s groundwater arsenic contamination? A new nanomaterial made from magnetite and graphene has been used to remove arsenic from drinking water. Once the hybrid material absorbs the arsenic, it can be separated from water using handheld magnets or filters. However, disposing of the nanoparticles safely to prevent them from entering the environment or being ingested is a problem. While the technology has been deemed ‘low-cost’, certainly a must for developing countries like Bangladesh, the question of further risks associated with any new technology needs to be accounted for, including how people in Bangladesh will interact with it if it is implemented. Read more
Dr Manzurul Hassan is geographer and faculty member of Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh. He did his MSc and PhD in the Department of Geography at Durham University. After completing his PhD in 2003, Dr Hassan did a number of research works on groundwater arsenic poisoning. Apart from this, he has conducted some consultancies in the development field with different national and international organisations and donor agencies. He is now actively involved in writing-up his book Arsenic in Groundwater: Poisoning and Risk Assessment with Professor Peter Atkins (IHRR/Geography) to be published by the CRC Press (USA). An important update on part of this research is now available.
How did groundwater arsenic contamination become a health hazard in Bangladesh?
There were waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea in Bangladesh due to the drinking of untreated water several decades ago. During the 1970s, UNICEF and some international donor agencies advised the Government of Bangladesh to tap groundwater for drinking purposes. Drinking this groundwater actually reduces the level of diarrhoea, but at the same time it is increasing the risk of arsenic poisoning, leading to arsenicosis, hyperpigmentation, gangrene, and finally cancer. The latency time of cancer symptoms is 15-30 years depending on arsenic content in the water and the period of ingestion. Local poor people are not actually aware of arsenic poisoning. They still think that tube well water is good quality and that it is much better than the surface water, whether it is contaminated with arsenic or not.
What are the social hazards associated with arsenic poisoning?
Some social problems have emerged other than health risk from arsenic poisoning. There is a very common tendency to ostracise people who have visible arsenic symptoms on their body, particularly different types of skin lesions or gangrene. People with arsenic poisoning can’t even go outside of their own home and they can’t participate in any social gathering. There are even problems within families causing parents to separate or the infected to leave home. They are isolated from society; they find it difficult to get a job and children cannot go to school. These are the kinds of social problems in Bangladesh within arsenic-affected communities. Read more