A group of Bangladeshis has begun legal proceedings at the High Court in London against British scientists over allegations that they failed to prevent arsenic poisoning of thousands of people.
In a writ lodged this week, the Bangladeshi villagers claim that the British Geological Survey (BGS) was negligent in work it did in central and eastern Bangladesh in 1992 to assess toxicity after aid programmes paid for sinking new wells.
The claim form alleges that the agency did not test for arsenic, despite cases of poisoning from wells in the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal. As a result, the villagers allege, five years passed before cases were first diagnosed in Bangladesh.
In the lead case, Binod Sutradhar, 43, who lives in the village of Ramrail in the country's Brahmanbaria region, claims he drank, on average, three litres of groundwater a day from a tubewell contaminated with arsenic.
Mr Sutradhar has since been diagnosed with arsenicosis and has developed ulcers and burns. Doctors say that he has become much more vulnerable to skin cancer and other forms of cancer.
Levels of arsenic in the tubewell drinking water, when tested in December 2001, were found to be much higher than recommended safety levels.
Mr Sutradhar, who has been awarded legal aid to bring his action in Britain, is claiming for a loss in his earning capacity as a carpenter, because he is only able to work two days per week. His solicitor Martyn Day, of the solicitors Leigh Day & Co, said yesterday: "Thousands of Bangladeshis have suffered the most serious injuries as a result of the arsenic contamination. On the face of it, a significant amount of that suffering could have been avoided if the BGS had tested for arsenic back in 1992."
Mr Day said their case was that the BGS could and should have undertaken that test: "If this is right, they should be made to pay, just as they would be made to pay if the same thing had happened in this country," he said.
Arsenic occurs naturally beneath much of Bangladesh. It is thought to be present at dangerous levels in the water from up to five million wells sunk across the country in the past 25 years.
A spokeswoman for the Natural Environment Research Council, which represents the BGS, said it was aware that Leigh Day & Co was preparing legal proceedings. She said: "We will be defending the action and do not believe we have any liability in this case."
Over the centuries, Bangla-deshis have relied upon the multitudinous rivers and streams that abound over the country's very flat land for water, much of which lies beneath sea level. Unfortunately, the water supply has also been the route for the country's sewage system and the confluence of the two has brought about untold levels of death and disease through cholera.
Unicef, the UN's children's fund, funded the sinking of about a million bore holes in the country to tap into the groundwater, which it believed would not be contaminated.