Arsenic

Click on above arrow for a brief video on arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh

Arsenic in Bangladesh’s groundwater is the largest human poisoning in world history, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).  It is one of the largest humanitarian disasters of our time, causing affected people untold suffering.  Twenty million people in Bangladesh are still exposed to high levels of arsenic.  Estimates of ~43,000 Bangladeshi deaths per year are caused by arsenic.

Below and other pages is information regarding this slow silent disaster.  If more detailed is desired read the document entitled "Arsenic, Bangladesh and Anabaptists". It provides a more detailed account of the arsenic problem, it's history, the work MCC did there and a call for a discussion regarding the situation.

Extent of contamination

Although most areas in the country have been touched by arsenic, the most contaminated areas are in the southern part of the country.  A more detailed map below ,than shown under 'background'  map below shows the contamination levels from an earlier well survey.  The darkest red signifies the most heavily contaminated areas in terms of percentage of land above the national standard for arsenic, with lighter shades representing decreasing levels of contamination.  Green signifies very little or no real contamination of water by arsenic.  The area where MCC worked in southern Bangladesh Is approximately denoted with the yellow oval shape. 

Arsenic_Bangladesh2.jpg

Arsenic distribution in the shallow aquifer in Bangladesh

Map prepared by J. W. Rosenbloom

UNICEF-Dhaka

There has been abundant research about the crisis, yet few in North America know much about it.   In the 1970s and 1980s, development agencies, including MCC, saw the need to switch from untreated surface water, carrying many water-related diseases, such as cholera.  These were killing people, especially infants and small children, at very high rates. The shallow aquifer underlying most of the country seemed like a good alternate source, to be tapped by shallow tube wells.  Arsenic was not commonly tested for then.  However, naturally occurring arsenic was found in many of these wells, starting in 1993.  It's source was from the Himalaya mountains.  Eventually it was found in very high levels over much of the south and parts of the north.  

For a time, arsenic was the number one issue getting attention in Bangladesh.  However, interest in the problem and numbers of organizations  assisting have dropped off, including MCC stopping their small program in 2008.  The magnitude of need is much greater than current groups can handle.

Perhaps like many problems in poorer parts of the world, there is a larger discrepancy on the knowledge of this problems among specialists and and others who lived in the developed parts of the world.  Relatively little of this problem is known in North America.  Development organizations and Non - Goverment Organizations (NGOs) that have worked with this have often done little to educate their constituents on this problem.

Health effects

The figure  below shows how arsenic cycles through water and food to humans, and the many serious maladies it causes.

 It’s estimated that ~5.5% of the annual deaths in the country are due to arsenic.  For heavily impacted areas, the rate is significantly higher.

As can be seen below, drinking and irrigation water drawing pumped up from the shallow aquifer that underlies much of Bangladesh are the main conduits for arsenic into the human environment.  Arsenic enters into humans not only from the drinking water but from crops which are grown on contaminated soils.  Contaminated soils can also cause serious crop yield decreases, with rice being the main crop of concern both because it takes up arsenic readily and also because it is by far the main staple of the Bangladesh diet.

 

Once in the body in sufficient amounts, arsenic can lay havoc with one's health.  As can be seen below, it can cause cancer in numerous areas o f the body.  It can can cause serious problems in the endocrine system, causing roblems such as diabetes.  It cause serious heart and ling problems.  It can cause serious development delays in babies and growing children.  It also can casue serious cognitive impariment, such as lead can.   And their are many other serious problems it can cause.

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Social Effects

The social effects of arsenic also can’t be ignored.  It affects children’s cognitive abilities; there are economic problems when people become impaired and can’t work; rejection and ostracism occur.  For the poor, who for many reasons suffer the greatest effects, these conditions lead to yet another poverty trap.

The social effects of arsenic also can’t be ignored.  It affects children’s cognitive abilities; there are economic problems when people become impaired and can’t work; rejection and ostracism occur.  For the poor, who for many reasons suffer the greatest effects, these conditions lead to yet another poverty trap.

If the arsenic situation itself was improved to the extent that the arsenic load in growing children was cut in half, the resulting improvement in cognitive abilities could result in more people entering the workforce able to do high-skilled labor.

Read more regarding the arsenic situation at the following links: