Sunday, June 08, 2003

Arsenic Poisoning in Bangladesh: The Clear and Present Danger

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
June 8, 2003

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls it the “biggest mass poisoning of a population in history”. There are millions of Bangladeshis exposed to poisonous arsenic from drinking water. Even rice and other crops irrigated with toxic water are in question. The rise of cancer, ulcers, gangrene, and painful warts are reported from various corners of Bangladesh those are directly linked to arsenic poisoning. WHO says that within the next decade one-tenth of all deaths in southern Bangladesh will be due to this arsenic crisis. That is about 20,000 deaths per year.

Will anyone be held responsible for this?

Arsenic, Microbes and Tragedy of Turtle Pace

Scientists observe that the arsenic poisoning in water is a natural phenomenon. Many of them believe that arsenic has been eroded naturally from the Himalayas by the Ganges over thousands of years and deposited amid silt in the river’s delta region. [1] Many believe that arsenic used to be attached with the silt on iron hydroxide particles. And now, either “as bacteria break down the iron compounds, “ or “due to changes caused by pumping” [1] of millions of wells, arsenic is coming loose from the silt and seeping into the water. Most wells in Bangladesh get their water from the depth zone of 65 to 260 feet below the surface level, and this is the same zone that arsenic is poisoning water as well.

A few MIT scientists put emphasis on the microbe’s involvement; they believe that “arsenic-breathing bacteria may be playing a role in the arsenic contamination of water wells in Bangladesh.” [2] This research may provide valuable insights on the ongoing efforts by the researchers on this tragic issue.

There are lots to learn on these arsenic-breathing microbes. In an article published in the Science journal, two of the researchers wrote, “It's possible that they are environmentally significant. For instance, they may play a role in arsenic contamination of water wells by converting arsenic from a largely inert form into a toxic, water-soluble form.”[2]

Many calls it a great tragedy for the poor people of Bangladesh who are already suffering from devastating yearly floods, immense poverty, corruption and other misfortunes associated with any other poor nations.

The Bangladeshi government and other international organizations have taken a few good steps. The World Bank is currently funding a project to survey and replace wells in 4000 villages of Bangladesh. But due to the sheer bureaucracy since the inception of this project in 1998, “so far, only about 15 percent of the country’s wells have been tested”. [1] That’s called the turtle pace and is not acceptable in this increasingly alarming arsenic crisis.

Noble Goal of UNICEF and Bangladesh Government?

Drinking water is becoming more and more a scarce resource around the globe. On June 5, the World’s “Environment Day”, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan provided a stark gloomy picture of this priceless commodity, he said, “Water-related diseases kill a child every eight seconds. One person in six lives without regular access to safe drinking water. Over twice that number -- 2.4 billion -- lack access to adequate sanitation." [3]

In the beginning, a few decades ago, due to the pollution on the surface water in Bangladesh, due to the rising cholera and typhoid and other water born diseases among the populace, especially the children, it was UNICEF that led the mass wells digging effort in Bangladesh. About 10 million or more wells now exist in Bangladesh from this massive effort. UNICEF’s original goal and intention were noble. They wanted to replace the polluted water sources, rivers and ponds that caused diseases and deaths among the populace.

In the time of distress, and arsenic is nothing but a full-blown catastrophe that is still materializing, one cannot stop wondering, is their any responsibilities that UNICEF should assume? Does the past and previous Bangladeshi government have any dubious roles in this tragedy? No saner person can accuse any purposeful, intentional maligns regarding arsenic crisis in Bangladesh, but is there any criminal negligence involved?

From the very beginning when this crisis came out to the public, UNICEF kept their points of opinion straight regarding their inability of identifying arsenic in any possible testing before undertaking the massive well-digging operations in Bangladesh. They maintain that at the time, standard procedures for testing the safety of groundwater did not include tests for arsenic [which] had never before been found in the kind of geological formations that exist in Bangladesh. [4]

But there are critics who do not buy into UNICEF’s official hand-wash version of responsibility. Many believes that it was religion like dogma held by the public health officials at the time without the knowledge of local geology, who maintained that ground water was safe without initiating a thorough scientific tests that would include arsenic test as well. Even in late 1980, before the arsenic news finally came out from its slumber, a British engineer named Peter Ravenscroft blew the alarm whistle on arsenic in ground water from his testing in Bangladesh. He said that he first found arsenic in groundwater in the late 1980s and published his findings in 1990. [4]

Though there were alarming number of arsenic poisoning cases being reported across Bangladesh, as far as 1985 when ill Bangladeshis were crossing border to India for medical treatment, but the Government of Bangladesh maintains that it knew about the crisis from 1993. It took another two precious years before acknowledging the widespread arsenic problem. And it took a few more years for the international organizations before offering their monetary help in the battle against arsenic.

The British Geological Survey Saga

The British Geological Survey is in trouble. In May 2003, a British judge ruled that 750 Bangladeshi arsenic victims should be able to sue the British Geological Survey, or BGS, a British government-owned research body, for failing to spot the poison in wells sunk across Bangladesh over the past 20 years. [1]

In 1992, BGS conducted a “reconnaissance survey” in Bangladesh to find out water quality in 150 wells “in central and northeastern Bangladesh”. [1] Though the World Health Organization had set international standards for testing arsenic in water supplies [1] eight years prior to BGS’ survey in Bangladesh, BGS for seemingly unexplainable “ignorant” reasons did not include arsenic as the trace elements in their tests.

Geochemistry professor John McArthur at London’s University College firmly believe that BGS should have looked for arsenic in their tests since “the BGS should have known about a series of studies linking an epidemic of arsenic poisoning just over the border in western India to contaminated water pumped up from the Ganges delta. They included a report by the World Health Organization published four years before.” [1] The British judge was quite right that there is indeed a case that BGS must explain about its inability to conduct the arsenic test that could have detected the crisis years earlier.

Statistics of Deaths of the Poor

For the vast majority of poor Bangladeshis, who have limited access to clean water, their ponds, rivers are polluted, who had depended on the deep-wells for so long, now are facing dilemma.

Water is the most essential element of life. And now they have the choice of drinking either the polluted water from the surface sources or poisoned water from deep-wells.

Arsenic is a slow killer. There are already high rises of malicious diseases among the Bangladeshi populace, and in this impoverished nation, who keeps the meticulous statistics of deaths of the poor on the countryside?

Bottled Water: Are They Safe?

Like sprouted mushrooms, there are plentiful of bottled water industries already doing good business, taking this lucrative water-crisis as a profit making opportunity. It is not to say that there is anything wrong in this type of business if they really can provide safe drinking water for the mass. In a recent two-year research studies conducted by the international researchers [6], it was found that most bottled water on sale in Bangladesh is unsafe for drinking. These researchers claimed that the bottled water does not conform to international standards for safe drinking water.

Here are their findings: “More than half the bottles carried information about minerals and other constituents, which were not well founded. The researchers, however, didn't disclose the brand names of the bottled water, certified mostly by the Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institute, the official authority to certify safety of these products. Plasma Plus, an application research laboratory, carried out the water sample analysis on 58 brands of drinking water including four imported brands labeled as mineral water. The study also showed 80 percent of the manufacturers didn't mention the address or location of their plants as required by the regulation. Some addresses were also found to be false.” [6]

Even if with strict government policies and regulations, safer water can be purchased through these bottled water companies, it cannot be the solution for the millions of poor Bangladeshis who won’t be able to afford the relatively exorbitant price associated with these bottle water that only well-to-do folks can afford in Bangladesh.

Promising Developments

There are some promising developments in tackling the arsenic problem are starting to coming out for the public. “Procter Gamble is developing a flocculant agent to remove arsenic and heavy metals from water — a procedure that is being field tested in Bangladesh” last winter. [7] There are positive developments on harvesting rainwater as the possible solution to this crisis; many Bangladeshi villages have already adopted this technique. Other manufacturers, researchers are developing new water purification equipments, methods. The major obstacle is to developing and marketing the water purification equipments that can be affordable for all Bangladeshis.

The World Bank and UNICEF are jointly working on this aspect, lending their essential monetary help for various projects. And why shouldn’t they? It’s their gone awry “good” project is the cause of arsenic crisis in Bangladesh. They should open their coffers more leniently in finding the permanent solutions of this dreadful crisis.


1. Fred Pearce, “Is the British Geological Survey Responsible for Massive Arsenic Poisoning in Bangladesh?” The Boston Globe, June 3, 2003.
2. David Fox, “World Marks Environment Day with Focus on Water”, Reuters, June 5, 2003.

3. Byron Spice, “Arsenic: Toxic to People, Vital to Some Microbes”, Post-Gazette, May 19, 2003.

4. Fred Pearce, “Bangladesh’s Arsenic Poisoning: Who is to Blame?”, The Courier, Unesco, January 2001.

5. Mahmud Hanif, “Arsenic in Bangladesh: Why is Responsible? Who is Paying?”, Meghbarta, February/March 2002.

6. “Bangladesh Study Rips Water”, Water Conditioning and Purification Magazine, February 2003: Volume 45, Number 2,

7. Wendy Wolfson, “Safe Water World”, Bio IT World, February 10, 2003.

8. Picture Reference:

Note: I find the following site quite helpful on Bangladesh arsenic crisis:


Mahbubul Karim (Sohel) is a freelance writer. His email address is:


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