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The Financial Express

Alleviating arsenic contamination


Alleviating arsenic contamination

A New York-based non-government organisation - Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed its apprehension that hundreds of people might die in Bangladesh in the coming years from diseases related to arsenic contamination. It said there are negligence and corruption in mitigating such a major health challenge.

Depending on exposure to arsenic contamination, one to five million of the 90 million children estimated to be born between 2000 and 2030 will eventually die because of exposure to arsenic in drinking water, according to the study.

The HRW claimed that arsenic is found in water mostly from shallow tube-wells in huge swathes of rural Bangladesh, mostly in the central and southern parts. If one drinks arsenic-contaminated water, s/he could suffer from cancers of skin, liver, kidney, bladder and lungs as well as cardiovascular diseases.

However, the government of Bangladesh rejected the report by calling it 'baseless'. Protesting the report, the government said none had, in fact, died in the country due to arsenic poisoning. Even none is now suffering any problem due to arsenic contamination. Some NGOs have allegedly been propagating it with ill motive, it added.

According to reports, 20 million people in Bangladesh are exposed to arsenic contamination. Some 65,000 people are now suffering from arsenic-related diseases, and an estimated 43,000 people die from such diseases every year.

On its part, the government said that there is a standard of 50 micrograms of arsenic per litre of water. However, HRW evidence shows that there was a rise in deaths and illnesses from exposure to arsenic in drinking water containing arsenic between 10 and 50 micrograms a litre.

From 1999 to 2006, the government, donors and NGOs made a concerted effort to mitigate arsenic contamination. They installed a few hundred thousand of safe water devices - mostly deep tube-wells that reach groundwater of better quality.

However, the HRW report claimed that mitigating arsenic remained negligent for about a decade. It found some 5,000 of the wells that were supposed to be arsenic-free are actually contaminated by arsenic. Although deep wells can often reach groundwater of better quality, government programmes failed to make it a priority to install new wells in areas where the risk of arsenic contamination is relatively high.

However, analysts claim that the Bangladesh government is not paying adequate attention to the health hazards caused by arsenic contamination even though millions of people are exposed to it. Even a decade ago, there were around 10 million tube-wells and the number has certainly increased with the rise of population now.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set 400 ppb (parts per billion) as a desirable quantity for manganese in drinking water. For arsenic it is 10 ppb. In line with its guidelines, the government has set a standard for drinking water. Most tube-wells in Bangladesh do not allegedly meet the standards set by the government. This is really alarming.

What is required at this moment is that the government should go for testing all the tube-wells in the country. An awareness campaign and a long-term plan to develop surface water as potable source are also necessary. Water filtration either at the sink or at the source must not be avoided, according to experts.

The short-term interventions should include a nationwide survey for status of overall situation of arsenic contamination and patient number and status in the country and strong political commitment for comprehensive arsenic mitigation programme.

Meantime, the government and international donors should immediately take initiatives to mitigate arsenic contamination by installing tube-wells wherever necessary. They should also support the communities to use appropriate filters to purify water for drinking.

 

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