Chemistry and Physics

The Unanswered Case of Arsenic Poisoning

River scene in Bangladesh, 2008. Photo: AusAID

The World Health Organisation declared the arsenic poisoning of Bangladesh as ‘the largest mass poisoning of a population in history’, so why does no one know about it?

With 30.1% of the earth’s freshwater stored within groundwater, the susceptibility of groundwater becoming contaminated by both external pollutants and endogenous chemicals means that a global population has become highly dependent on a potentially dangerous water source. Arsenic is a semi-metallic element, in which exposure to excess concentrations in water through drinking and bathing can lead to a disastrous diagnosis of skin lesions and cancers.

The global standard for arsenic contamination is 10 ug/L, and with over 20 million individuals in Bangladesh accessing water containing up to 50 ug/L, it is no surprise that ‘the country of Bengal’ is considered as one of the greatest arsenic hotspots in the world.

The source of the problem dates back the 1970s, when a well-intended intervention by the UN and World Bank to tackle child mortality due to osmotic diarrhoea resulted in poorly built tube-wells contaminated with arsenic. It wasn’t until 1993 that the contamination was first detected in groundwater, by which point, half of the 7-11 million hand-pumped tube wells in Bangladesh were estimated to supply populations with poisoned water; most of these located in the most poverty-stricken, rural areas of the country.

“Despite their good intentions, The World Health Organisation and World Bank failed to respond to the humanitarian disaster with enough urgency”

The effects of arsenic poisoning are not only physically damaging, but extensive exposure has been associated with neurological disorders and cognitive impairment in children. The situation in Bangladesh has become so severe that the distinguishing signs of poisoning, typically skin abrasions on the hands and feet, has become part of a social stigma, where such a condition is often considered part of a curse or infectious disease.

Despite the vast media storm surrounding arsenic poisoning in the early 90s, coverage in more recent years has dwindled and no one is yet to be held responsible for the devastation. It has been argued that despite their good intentions, The World Health Organisation and World Bank failed to respond to the humanitarian disaster with enough urgency, whilst the Human Rights Watch declared that there was a general lack of monitoring and quality control during the initial installation of the tube-wells.

The same report by the Human Rights Watch, surveyed in 2016, documents that despite an estimated 43,000 deaths per years due to arsenic-related causes, little is being done in terms of both prevention and treatment. It is highlighted that even 20 years after coming to international attention, external donors and aid organisations are not doing enough to reverse the damage, whilst the local governments are failing to acknowledge the magnitude of the current situation.

Failure to tackle the problem is blamed on nepotism, with politicians diverting new, clean supplies to their political associates rather than those in critical need of sanitised water. In order to achieve a safe standard of drinking water in Bangladesh, it is necessary for an intense regime, which involves testing all shallow and deep tube wells to be implemented. The areas at most risk must be targeted with both care and funding by the government and external parties who are finally willing to end the neglect.

The poisoning of Bangladesh has been paralleled to the environmental disasters of Chernobyl and Bhopal, yet there is a failure to acknowledge the situation as a true humanitarian crisis and it is an issue that can no longer be ignored.

Lilly Matson

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Image courtesy of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade via Flickr

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