Contamination of drinking-water by arsenic in Bangladesh: a public health emergency

Contamination of drinking-water by arsenic in Bangladesh: a public health emergency

The contamination of groundwater by arsenic in Bangladesh is the largest poisoning of a population in history, with millions of people exposed.

aPAuWGZ.jpgThis paper describes the history of the discovery of arsenic in drinking-water in Bangladesh and recommends intervention strategies. Tube-wells were installed to provide ‘‘pure water’’ to prevent morbidity and mortality from gastrointestinal disease. The water from the millions of tube-wells that were installed was not tested for arsenic contamination.

Studies in other countries where the population has had long-term exposure to arsenic in groundwater indicate that 1 in 10 people who drink water containing 500 mg of arsenic per litre may ultimately die from cancers caused by arsenic, including lung, bladder and skin cancers. The rapid allocation of funding and prompt expansion of current interventions to address this contamination should be facilitated.

The fundamental intervention is the identification and provision of arsenic-free drinking water. Arsenic is rapidly excreted in urine, and for early or mild cases, no specific treatment is required. Community education and participation are essential to ensure that interventions are successful; these should be coupled with follow-up monitoring to confirm that exposure has ended.

Taken together with the discovery of arsenic in groundwater in other countries, the experience in Bangladesh shows that groundwater sources throughout the world that are used for drinking-water should be tested for arsenic.

Keywords: Bangladesh; arsenic poisoning, prevention and control; arsenic poisoning, therapy; water pollution, chemical, prevention and control; water treatment; environmental monitoring

Bulletin of the World Health Organization