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Arsenic in Groundwater Could Kill Millions in Bangladesh

Half the population of Bangladesh--about 77 million people--is at high risk of an early death from drinking groundwater contaminated with toxic levels of arsenic, according to a new study conducted by researchers from the United States and Bangladesh and published in the British medical journal The Lancet.

The 10-year study of 12,000 Bangladeshis--the first to measure the relationship between individual arsenic intake and increased risk of death--found that 20 percent of deaths in those studied were caused by arsenic exposure from contaminated drinking water.

Six years into the study, researchers found that for the top 25 percent of people with the highest arsenic exposure, the risk of dying had increased by nearly 70 percent compared with people with low arsenic levels.

Arsenic causes cancer and is toxic to the liver, skin, kidneys, and the cardiovascular system. The World Health Organization called the situation in Bangladesh "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history."

Ironically, many of the wells now delivering water contaminated with arsenic were dug during the 1970s in a massive government effort to provide the population with safe drinking water and reduce waterborne illnesses, such as cholera, by installing some 10 million hand-pumped wells. The program succeeded in its initial goal, but left Bangladeshis with another problem: drinking water laced with arsenic.

The research team chose Bangladesh for the study because 90 percent of Bangladeshis rely on groundwater from wells as their primary source of drinking water, but the danger is not limited to Bangladesh. Researchers said people also drink arsenic-tainted groundwater in other countries, including Argentina, Chile, parts of Mexico, and the U.S. states of Nevada, New Mexico and New Hampshire. The arsenic levels may not be as high in those areas, but the danger could still be extreme. The researchers plan to expand the study to examine the effects of exposure to lower levels of arsenic.

"We know very high levels of arsenic are harmful, but we just don't know what is the lowest safest dose that could be harmless," said Dr. Habibul Ahsan of the University of Chicago Medical Center, who led the study.
Ahsan acknowledged that removing arsenic from groundwater would be difficult, especially for a poor nation like Bangladesh, but he said the problem should not be ignored.
"Tens of millions of people there are at high risk of dying early," Ahsan said. "Something needs to be done urgently to reduce the exposure to arsenic for this population and find alternative, safe drinking water sources."

Solving the problem may not require an engineering marvel or a technological breakthrough, however. Some experts have suggested that it may just be a matter of digging deeper wells to get below the shallow levels where arsenic is concentrated and more likely to contaminate groundwater. That would still be an expensive solution, but not a complicated one.

In any case, given the severity of the problem, the relative poverty of Bangladesh, and the potential danger to other nations, you would think the international community would be willing to lend a hand in finding and implementing a solution.

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