Bangladesh faces disaster from arsenic in underground water
from, November 16, 1998

AP News Service

HATHKOPA, Bangladesh (AP) – After a tough game of soccer, panting children cluster around a well and pump up gushes of cool water, gulping it down greedily.

The well pipe is painted red, a warning that its water is tainted with arsenic. The children, ages 5 to 13, drink anyway.

"My parents have warned me not to drink from this tube well. But I'm too thirsty," says sixth-grader Nazmul Khan.

Eight years ago, as part of a two-decade-old project financed by the World Bank and UNICEF, government engineers sank more than 100 wells in Hathkopa, a village of 2,000 people 30 miles east of the capital, Dhaka.

For the first time, the people of Hathkopa, who had repeatedly been sickened by drinking from bacteria-infested ponds, got pure, tasty water.

Then last year, public health surveyors made a stunning revelation: Most of the millions of wells across Bangladesh are contaminated by naturally occurring arsenic that is leaching into underground aquifers. All but 10 of Hathkopa's hand-operated wells pump up tainted water.

Low concentrations of arsenic like that in the water slowly build up in the body, causing deadly cancers and other illnesses that may not arise for years.

Authorities have no idea of the extent of the health disaster because of the varying degrees of arsenic contamination, but many of Bangladesh's 130 million people relied on well water.

A six-month study last year by Dhaka Community Hospital, which specializes in studying arsenic poisoning, estimated that up to 76 million people could be at risk.

Adults have stopped drinking from the dangerous wells, although they still use the water for washing dishes and clothes. Many people have gone back to collecting water from the village pond, which they now boil or sterilize with purifying tablets. But parents find it hard to keep the children away from the poisoned wells.

"I don't drink water from this well, but my children sometimes do," said Mumtaz Begum, a mother of three sons and two daughters.

Bangladeshis are used to disasters that come with a fury: cyclones roaring in from the turbulent Bay of Bengal, or floods swamping as much as two-thirds of this country that is mostly a vast, low-lying river delta. Each year, nature's rage kills thousands.

But this latest affliction crept up slowly, quietly. What people had welcomed for two decades as a bounty has become a deadly curse.

"Thousands of Bangladeshi villagers have been unwitting victims of what may be the biggest mass poisoning in history," the Bangladesh office of World Bank said in a report.

Conservative estimates suggest at least 100 people have died of arsenic-related diseases in the past year and 1,000 have become ill.

"This is just a tip of a huge iceberg. Most deaths from arsenic-related poisoning is not known because the problem was not detected until 1993," said Dr. Shibtosh Roy, a physician at Dhaka Community Hospital.

Prolonged exposure to arsenic can cause kidney, liver, intestinal, neurological, cardiovascular and respiratory disorders.

The initial symptom is a thickening of the skin, like corns and calluses on the hands and feet. In more advanced stages, black patches appear on the skin, a form of cancer known as blackfoot disease.

Early diagnosis is difficult because the warts look like calluses from farming. It can take 10 to 20 years of prolonged consumption before a person dies, and the process is reversible only if the consumption is halted early.

Until the arsenic was first discovered in some wells five years ago, the project that gave Bangladesh 4 million simple wells was hailed as a major public health success story. It saved tens of thousands of people who would have died form waterborne diseases caused by drinking pond water.

In its study last year, the Dhaka Community Hospital examined thousands of wells in 52 of the country's 64 districts. Most of them were found to contain higher than the permissible level of arsenic.

Under European and U.S. environmental laws, the maximum for arsenic in drinking water is .05 gram per liter, although the World Health Organization recently revised that to .1 gram per liter. In some areas of Bangladesh, well water contains as much as 100 to 900 times higher levels than that.

The World Bank and others are now searching for easy and affordable alternatives to well water. Boiling pond water is one, but most people are too poor to pay for the fuel. Building systems to collect rain water is another possibility.

Copyright 1998 AP News Service