Sir: The report "Arsenic-tainted water from Unicef wells is poisoning half of Bangladesh" (5 September) sensationalised a serious public health problem.
Unicef, together with the government of Bangladesh, the World Bank and other international donor agencies, is tackling the problem head-on. We are providing funding and technical help to test tubewells and to promote alternatives such as rainwater harvesting and low-cost filtration systems that remove arsenic and other contaminants.
To combat cholera, the government of Bangladesh, with support from Unicef and other donors, started sinking tubewells over 25 years ago as an alternative to pond and river water which was often heavily contaminated by faecal bacteria. These tubewells, along with an increase in sanitation and the promotion of oral rehydration therapy, have contributed to saving lives. In 1990, more than a quarter of a million children under the age of five died as a result of diarrhoea, the biggest child-killer in Bangladesh. By 1996, that number had fallen to 110,000.
We challenge the statement that "half of Bangladesh" is drinking from tubewells tainted with arsenic. To date, one fifth of the 19,000 tubewells tested by the government with Unicef's support have been found to be unsafe. However, until a significant proportion of tubewells from all parts of the country have been tested it will remain unclear how many people are at risk of arsenic contamination.
UK Committee for Unicef