How the West poisoned Bangladesh

A UN project aimed to help millions - but it brought them water contaminated with arsenic

Up to 20 million people in Bangladesh are at risk of suffering early deaths because of arsenic poisoning – the legacy of a well-intentioned but ill-planned water project that created a devastating public health catastrophe.

Four decades after an internationally funded move to dig tube wells across the country massively backfired, huge numbers of people still remain at higher risk of contracting cancer and heart disease. The intellectual development of untold numbers of children is also being held back by the contamination of drinking water. Poor diet exacerbates the risk.

Bangladesh's arsenic crisis dates back to the 1970s when, in an effort to improve the quality of drinking water and counter diarrhoea, which was one of the country's biggest killers of children, there was large-scale international investment in building tube wells. It was believed the wells would provide safe supplies for families, otherwise dependent on dirty surface water which was killing up to 250,000 children a year.

Yet the move, spearheaded by the UN and the World Bank, was fatally flawed. Although checks were carried out for certain contaminants in the newly sourced water, it was not tested for arsenic, which occurs naturally in the Ganges and Brahmaputra deltas. By the early 1990s, when it was found that up to half of 10 million tube wells were contaminated with arsenic, Bangladesh was confronting a huge problem. The World Health Organisation called it "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history... The scale of the environmental disaster is greater than any seen before; it is beyond the accidents in Bhopal, India, in 1984, and Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986".

Some subsequent studies predicted that, ultimately, one person in 10 who drinks water from the arsenical wells would go on to die from lung, bladder or skin cancer. Even though some of these conditions take decades to develop, by 2004, about 3,000 people a year were dying from arsenic-related cancers.

Since the 1990s, organisations such as Unicef have led the effort to develop and provide alternative sources of water, such as collecting rainwater and filtering surface water. Slowly, the percentage of families exposed to contaminated water has fallen. But a survey conducted by Unicef last year found that 13 per cent of people are still using contaminated water. "That equates to 20 million people," says Yan Zheng, a Unicef arsenic specialist based in Dhaka. "The health impacts vary. The skin lesions that arsenic causes are well recognised by the villagers. But the cancer and cardiovascular diseases are still not fully recognised by the villagers and some health professionals." Ms Zheng says a recent study showed significantly higher death rates for those exposed to arsenic: "It was as you would expect – the higher the exposure, the higher the risk.".

Government and UN officials will publish a new report tomorrow calling for urgent action to tackle what remains a huge problem of contamination, both from drinking water and from crops such as rice that are irrigated with contaminated water. According to the report, being released to coincide with World Water Day, arsenic poses health risks to a significant proportion of the population, though children are particularly vulnerable.

The skin lesions caused by arsenicosis are just the first sign of many possibly fatal health problems. The lesions still attract widespread social stigma in Bangladesh, with many people until recently believing they were the result of a curse.

"Urgent action is needed to refocus the attention of the nation towards an arsenic-safe environment," says Renata Lok Dessallien, the UN chief in Bangladesh. "Concerted efforts by the government and all stakeholders are necessary to reinvigorate arsenic monitoring and mitigation efforts, and to conduct comprehensive research on emerging threats."

The arsenic contaminating so much of Bangladesh's water occurs naturally in the water courses of the rivers that sustain hundreds of millions of people. Many underground sources around the world suffer from arsenic contamination and there have been health issues in countries ranging from Argentina to Taiwan and India. There is also considerable arsenic contamination in parts of the US.

In Bangladesh, a fierce row continues to rage over the responsibility for the massive contamination. While aid groups and the UN insist their testing at the time met international standards, others have argued that there should have been a more thorough awareness of the local geology and topography. Yet more have said that the UN and the World Bank were slow to acknowledge their role in the tragedy.

Dipankar Chakraborti, of the Jadavpur University in West Bengal and a leading expert, says the level of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh is worse than anywhere else globally. He says the international bodies have never fully acknowledged their role in a crisis that will be played out for years to come. "It is a major problem," he says. "We have found that when we went back to people with skin lesions whom we interviewed 15 years ago, about 30 per cent of them had developed some sort of cancer."

Last year scientists concluded that arsenic entered the water in tube wells as a result of thousands of ponds that were dug across Bangladesh to provide soil for flood protection. Disturbing the ground released the organic carbon, which in turn causes arsenic to leach from sediments. The scientists from MIT in Boston concluded that one solution would be to dig "deeper drinking-water wells, below the influence of the ponds".

Meanwhile, educating the public about the dangers of arsenic poisoning, and disabusing them of the widespread idea that its effects are the result of a curse, or infectious, is essential. "Raising awareness among people on the danger of arsenic is essential," says Bangladesh's minister of health, Dr A F M Ruhal Haque. "Health workers can disseminate this message, while the government will continue to invest in screening and treatment of arsenicosis patients in affected districts."

Britain's toxic beer

Arsenic was a pervasive contaminant in Britain and the US in the 19th century. It was used in wallpaper, fabric dyes, and even as a colouring in confectionery.

One of the worst instances of man-made arsenical poisoning came in Lancashire in late 1900. Large numbers of people in the Manchester and Salford areas displayed symptoms of what was thought to be simple over-indulgence. But, as the cases mounted, and people began to turn up with blackened skin and other tell-tale signs, arsenic poisoning was suspected. This was confirmed, and eventually traced to the firm that supplied sugar used in brewing.

Before the poisonings had run their course, more than 6,000 people had been affected, and 80 of these died. The episode was instrumental in securing more rigorous legislation on food safety.

Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Arts and Entertainment
books
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone