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Editorial, The Bangladesh observer

By Steve Connor and Fred Pearce

In January 1999 the long awaited BGS-Mott MacDonald report, "Groundwater Studies For Arsenic Contamination In Bangladesh" Phase I was published. Many scientists were surprised when they found it contradicted the view that the arsenic contamination of groundwater was caused by a lowering of the water table that had allowed oxygen to get into the aquifers and attack the arsenic bearing iron pyrite deposits in the sediment. Since the publication of this report there has been a persistent controversy on this issue alone. Today there is another. Dr. John McArthur, whose team was the first to report on the geochemistry behind the world's largest outbreak of arsenic poisoning, and a Reader in Geochemistry Geological Sciences at the University College London has accused researchers at the British Geological Survey (BGS) ofwithholding vital data

Two years ago the BGS carried out the first comprehensive chemical testing of tubewell water in Bangladesh. It concluded that thewater being drunk by up to 40 million Bangladeshis contains arsenic at sometimes hundreds of times the recommended safety level of 0.01 mg/litre but, Dr.McArthur says, BGS is refusing to allow him access to most of the measurementsmade on over 2000 water samples taken during the survey. Why this is sois impossible to ascertain, more so because it is not from the on-going PhaseII, but from the completed Phase I and has already been published in graphform in Volume S4 of the BGS-Mott Macdonald report. This detailed data hasalso not been made available to others who are working on the project inBangladesh.

Dr. John McArthur says BGS holds the only comprehensive data set capable of proving which of the disputed theories is right, so he wants it released to the public as the answer will dictate where, in theabsence of practical chemical treatments for the poisoned wells, safer wellscan be dug. He also claims the embargo by BGS is preventing scientists inBangladesh and elsewhere from reaching agreement on how the arsenic got intothe water but BGS refuses to budge from its position and says it will makethe data available later this year. The reason? "Because in some cases" they"were not sure of it, and in other cases it was not important." BGS alsosaid it "wanted to have the first chance to look at [their] data properly"themselves.

DPHE have reportedly asked for the data but BGS has still not handed it over yet, as the data is from Phase I of the study, it is owned by the DPHE on behalf of the government of Bangladesh and therefore is well within its rights to demand it. The situation becomes more intense as it was the same BGS who had in 1992 undertaken a water quality survey on 19 wells and produced the following report and paper: Davies J and Exley C, 1992. BGS Technical Report WD/92/43R. Hydrochemical character of the main aquifer units of central and north-eastern Bangladesh and possible toxicity of groundwater to fish and humans and "The hydrogeochemistry of alluvial aquifers in central Bangladesh" by J. Davies. In: Groundwater Quality; H.Nash and GJH McCall (eds). Chapman Hall, 1994,

The abstract to the second paper states "The groundwaters are all of Ca(HCO3)2 type, suitable for crop irrigation and domestic use." This paper appeared three years after the Indian PHED Report of 1991 into the arsenic crisis in West Bengal and in the same year as: Das et al. 1994. Arsenic contamination of six districts in West Bengal, India: the biggest arsenic calamity in the World. Analyst, 199, 168-170. But neither of these BGS articles mentions arsenic although, according to experts, the data contains many very clear chemical pointers to its presence (high phosphorus and iron, highish bicarbonate) . Nickson et al. (1998, 2000) found arsenic pollution in the areas BGS sampled. Now BGS are funded by DFID to investigate arsenic pollution. BGS collected samples for their Three Thana Survey in February 1997 and March 1998. The accusation levelled at them is they still have not published the important parts ofthat data a full year after they published the unimportant data. However,if as BGS claims, the data is not important, what valid reason can they havefor withholding it? The point is - what if it is important? Who is to decideits relevance? BGS or the owner (DPHE)?

As BGS wrote the volume known as "S4" and also Chapter 6 of Vol S2, plus the Q&A in the Main Report, they and they alone have access to the data -- therefore they and they alone are responsible for suppressing the information. In contrast the Regional Survey (vol S2) published all the results for the 2000+ wells listed whereas in S4 no individual results have been given. As a set of these reports were given to each district XEN, there was every reason to expect they contained the complete data and that theaffected people would be informed. Which brings us to our next question -- Why were the users of the arsenic-contaminated wells in Faridpur, Nawabganjand Lakshmipur not told and warned of the danger from drinking water fromthese wells?

DFID is reported to have written to DPHE asking them to inform the people of the results but without the complete data they could not because they were unable to identify individual owners/users. This is one valid reason why the data must be handed over without delay. In fact the only way to resolve this issue is for the data to be released immediately. This is a matter that has been taken up by the international press and at least one author, Fred Pierce, asked - "Could wrangles over science delay a solution?" It would indeed seem so for if scientists continue to debate the issue they cannot come to grips with the solutions. And as Dr. McArthur says, "with many people in Bangladesh and India still convinced of the oxidation argument, it is a tragedy not to have published the data. Pyrite oxidation would happen mainly in shallow wells [less than 10 metres deep], and theanswer will be to dig deeper wells. But iron reduction would happen at deeperlevels and the answer will be shallow wells." But BGS remains firm aboutnot publishing the information earlier than planned saying: "We didn't putall the data in the first report because in some cases we were not sure ofit, and in other cases it was not important. Also we wanted to have the firstchance to look at our data properly." He says his final report will be completein April and published later this year. The point is - can the people ofBangladesh wait that long?

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