Millions of people in Bangladesh have been poisoned with arsenic, due to well-meaning efforts of international development groups.
Apparently, this is not a new problem or newly acknowledged problem, but a new report out by the British medical journal The Lancet finds that 77 million people in Bangladesh are exposed to arsenic in their drinking water. This takes years if not decades off of millions of people’s lives. In fact, the study found that 1 out of every 5 deaths in the population group were due to elevated arsenic levels in these people’s bodies.
“It could be the worst mass poisoning in history. And the terrible irony is that it may all be due to an idealistic push to clean up drinking water for some of the world’s poorest people,” Brian Walker of CNN reports.
Even a decade ago, the World Health Organization recognized the problem, calling it “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history… beyond the accidents at Bhopal, India, in 1984, and Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986.”
The main cause: development groups trying to help Bangladeshis convinced them to dig wells in order to get their own “clean” drinking water rather than using contaminated surface water and water from polluted rivers. But, arsenic is “found in abundance in the soil and rock in Bangladesh…. [and it’s] leached up through the water table in tens of millions of water wells across the country.”
The top 25% of those exposed to the arsenic in Bangladesh have a 70% higher mortality rate than the population as a whole.
Additionally, long-term studies have shown that it takes 20 years for the morbidity effects of arsenic poisoning to go away.
I guess the lesson is, make sure you understand what’s in the groundwater before you go digging a well. But that lesson doesn’t help millions of people in Bangladesh now.
Photo Credit: Oxfam International via flickr/CC license