ARSENIC contamination of ground water has raised concern due to its threat to human health, ranging from skin lesions to cancer of liver, kidney, stomach and brain. The problem is now recognised as a major public health one in Bangladesh. But it has been observed that only a negligible number of public health experts are involved in the whole process of mitigation of the problem. Public health experts should play the lead role in the process to solve the problem.

It is important to note that previous activities should be carefully evaluated and pitfalls, both in terms of institutions and individuals, should be identified before the work of the next phase starts so that we can move on the right track utilising the experiences of previous learning. A poor country like Bangladesh with very limited resources cannot afford so much of unnecessary experimentation.

Since we do not have much resource, we need to plan our activities prioritising our different needs. Recently, a trend is being observed in the name of evaluating the arsenic removal technology. A number of arsenic removal technologies, both at community and domestic levels, are currently available. These are mostly based on chemical formulas. In Nilkanda village, Thana Sonargaon, District Narayanganj, the NGO forum came forward to supply safe and arsenic-free water. But, due to complications in collecting water, many people do not come to take this water.

In coordination with the NGO forum recently, few rainwater harvesting plants were established. Rainwater may be collected in special containers and may be drunk. This water is free from arsenic. They also provided bucket treatment unit (BTU) i.e. with the help of balti (bucket) arsenic-free water is supplied.

After going through a long chemical experimentation, an agency decides to develop a filter on commercial basis. The question arises: when any arsenic removal technology is available in the market, should we again go for laboratory-based evaluation? So, an initial screening process should be there to select any technology for evaluation at the laboratory. Bangladesh should not be made open for marketing of foreign technologies. It is to be noted that, in the name of arsenic-free water, some NGOs are receiving huge amounts of foreign currency. Rainwater harvesting and arsenic-free tubewell establishment projects have gone in vain.

A national water management policy is very much needed at the moment rather than evaluating so many arsenic removal technologies. Acceptability, affordability and accessibility of the arsenic removal technologies are of more importance and these need to be tested at the community level. It is to be kept in mind that important aspect of the evaluation of any drinking water source should include health aspects. Whether the recommended water options are increasing the frequency of water borne diseases or not should be looked into.

For these, periodical monitoring of water quality and disease frequency is also essential. It is to be considered an important issue too. All the tubewells of more than 50 thanas have been tested for arsenic, but in most of the thanas, alternative water options have not yet been provided; screening and offering of solution and implementation are not yet done suitably. So, the majority of the arsenic-affected population remain exposed to danger. It is not known how the treatment of arsenicosis patient is likely to succeed unless he or she has access to arsenic-free water for drinking and cooking.

All the tubewell screening data should be made available to the local union, thana health complexes and district sadar hospitals where the doctors now have to diagnose the disease by looking mostly at the skin lesions which have other differential diagnoses. Water data might help them in diagnosing arsenicosis patients more accurately.

Source: Shah M Abdur Rahman, Member EC-Committee and life member of Bangladesh Caner Society), The Financial Express, September 12, 2002

Ganges River to Nourish Arsenic-affected Villages in India

The Bihar state government in eastern India will soon launch projects to supply safe drinking water from the Ganges River to arsenic-affected villages in the region, Gulf News reports. The water supply projects will cover nearly 200 villages in three districts, where levels of poisonous arsenic in groundwater can reach up to 2,100 parts per billion — far above the World Health Organization’s safety limit of 10 parts per billion. The projects will treat surface water before supplying it to the districts, as groundwater purification is costly and unsustainable, a public official said.

Arsenic, a chemical element that occurs free in nature or as a by-product of industries and agriculture, can cause cancer of the skin, lungs, bladder and kidney. According to a health expert, people in the state of Bihar — one of the least urbanized, yet most densely populated Indian states — also suffer from bone and skin problems. “In some affected villages, people have complained of weakening and bending of the bones and dreadful rashes and lumps on the skin,” he said. (Circle of Blue WaterNews, May 28, 2009)

Last Modified October 1, 2009

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