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         3 July 2001

Bangladesh water: Emergency measures urged
to prevent "catastrophic" arsenic poisoning

Up to 57 million at risk of cancer, lesions from drinking arsenic;
A developing human disaster of "unprecedented proportions"

Contacts: Terry Collins +1-416-538-8712; +88-0-175-23131 (Dhaka cell phone, from June 30)
John Chenery +1-416-532-8218; +1-416-452-6016 (mobile)
Washington Nils Hoffman: +1-703-820-2244

The full study and photos are online at

Embargoed to 00:01 a.m. GMT Tuesday, July 3

U.N. officials Colin Davis (UNICEF), Han Heijnen (WHO), and Zafar Adeel (UNU), together with Nasrine Karim (Earth Identity Project), Feroze Ahmad (Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology), and an official from the Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation-Water Supply Project, are available for telephone interviews Monday, July 2 and Tuesday July 3. Please call contacts above to schedule a time. The report will be presented at a conference, Sheraton Hotel, Dhaka, 10 a.m. Tues. July 3.

Emergency measures are needed to prevent mass arsenic poisoning caused by contaminated well water in Bangladesh and halt a developing human disaster of unprecedented proportions, a new international report warns.

At least 28 million and as many as 57 million people - more than the number worldwide infected with the HIV virus - are drawing well water throughout Bangladesh and in West Bengal, India contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic, according to the study, presented at a U.N.-hosted meeting July 3 in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.

The impoverished South Asian region urgently needs international medical, financial, technical and scientific support to better educate the at-risk population, provide safe water alternatives and prepare for the health and economic consequences expected in years to come from the long-term consumption of arsenic by a large proportion of the population.

"The sheer magnitude of this disaster means that we are faced with new challenges and tasks that have likely never been undertaken before," according to the study, "Arsenic Crisis Today, Strategy for Tomorrow," developed by U.N. University in partnership with the Earth Identity Project.

The polluted well water, which is naturally contaminated by arsenic-rich rocks underground in the region, can be made safe with a number of cheap and locally-available technologies. The study calls for a coordinated international crisis response, involving foremost the education of people at risk, providing water treatment technologies and alternative water sources, building the capabilities of health services in Bangladesh in the short and long terms, and improving nutrition to strengthen resistance to the health problems.

"The crisis has its roots in another worthy effort to fight water-borne diseases that had impacted this tropical region for a long time," the study says. "Acute health problems, such as gastrointestinal diseases and infant mortality, were attributed to drinking bacteria-contaminated surface water. It was therefore believed that using groundwater would easily circumvent the problem because groundwater at certain depths is not exposed to bacterial contamination. Presence of arsenic in groundwater was not considered a concern during the 1970's when a campaign of switching to groundwater as a source of drinking water was undertaken. Over a period of about 20-25 years since then about four million wells have been installed to utilize the groundwater from shallow aquifer layers, typically less than 200 meters deep."

Engineering and geological scientists estimate that in Bangladesh, with a population of 129 million, the number of people now consuming arsenic-contaminated water is 28 to 35 million (using a drinking water standard of 50 parts per billion currently used in Bangladesh and elsewhere) and 46 to 57 million people if a more conservative health guideline of 10 ppb is used.

According to the World Health Organization, increased risks of lung and bladder cancer and of arsenic-associated skin lesions have been observed at drinking water arsenic concentrations of less than 50 ppb. The WHO established 10 ppb as a provisional guideline value for arsenic in 1993.

A public health "catastrophe"

Compounding the health risk from arsenic pollution is widespread undernutrition of the rural poor of Bangladesh who are most exposed to the problem. The gradually occurring health effects include skin lesions and cancer, internal cancers (bladder, kidney, lungs), hypertension and heart disease, gangrene and diabetes. The most common signs of arsenicosis are hyperpigmentation, especially on the upper chest and arms, and keratoses on the palms and soles of the feet. While there is no known cure, research suggests increased levels of vitamins A, C, and E and proteins may help in resisting its onset. Similarly, increased levels of other micronutrients are also considered essential. Some symptoms, such as lesions, can be temporarily eased with medicated lotions that soften the skin.

"A large number of patients with visible or measurable health impacts are anticipated - although such precise estimates for Bangladesh have not even been developed as yet," the study says. "In neighboring West Bengal, about 200,000 patients are estimated by WHO for an exposed population of about 1.5 million." The exposed population in Bangladesh is "at least 20 times" that in West Bengal.

Short-term priorities for coordinated national and international action include:

  • A major awareness-raising campaign in the country, with the help of non-governmental organizations, to dispel myths and inform those affected by the problem about its cause and associated symptoms; to explain how obtain and test for safe water; to improve nutrition information; and to better engage women in the issue;

  • Identification of alternative water sources in the immediate short term; for example, provision of inexpensive, simple treatment and testing systems for water from underground and surface sources at the household and community levels; identifying "safe" wells; encouraging the practice of rainwater harvesting; and sinking deeper wells where practicable;

  • Diagnosis and treatment of patients already affected; and

  • The engagement of political effort at the highest level and the co-ordination of government ministries in Bangladesh, led by a single department designated with overall responsibility.

Delayed health problems

The study notes "it takes several years of drinking arsenic-contaminated water to have visible symptoms - although they may appear earlier in some patients. This hints towards a 'surprise factor' where a much larger than anticipated number of people may be impacted."

The study says a long-term health policy "must take into account this pattern of delayed appearance of patients. This means that there is some time available to fully build the capacity of existing health care services to cope with an increased flow of arsenic patients."

Among other longer-term priorities identified in the study:

  • Verify the estimated number of arsenic poisoning victims in Bangladesh;

  • Train medical staff and strengthen the Bangladesh health care system to support known victims in rural villages and to cope with the large number of anticipated future patients;

  • Identify effective treatments for arsenicosis;

  • Improve understanding of the health risks of arsenic ingestion through routes other than water (e.g. food crops, dust), as well as how the effects of arsenic poisoning may be compounded by the presence of other pollutants and by undernourishment. The report notes U.N. projections that roughly 37 million people in Bangladesh will be undernourished by year 2010.

  • Ensure transparency in interactions between stakeholders and the active participation of civil society in the design, planning and implementation of remediation strategies;

  • Provide alternative livelihoods for those directly impacted by arsenic contamination.
The study says dealing with the arsenic problem will have major economic ramifications throughout Bangladesh, impacting the agriculture and related industries, water management, public health and the overall national economy. According to Hans van Ginkel, U.N. Under Secretary-General and Rector of U.N. University, "The poisoning of people on this scale is unprecedented in history. Those affected by this public health disaster need our urgent attention. Our collective efforts must be based on clear thinking and built around practical steps that can lead us to concrete solutions for the future."

Said Mr. Humayun Rashid Chaudhury, Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament: "Although some steps have been taken to mitigate the crisis facing our country today, more effective and speedy measures must be undertaken before the disease takes more valuable lives."

The World Bank is already providing an initial $52 million to help address the problem and U.N. agencies are working to help develop a comprehensive remediation programme. The U.N. Foundation last year dedicated $2.5 million to assist in the effort.

The day-long meeting of international experts and national government ministers in Dhaka July 3 will conclude with a joint declaration on an emergency National Strategy to Combat the Arsenic Crisis.

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For further information, please contact:
The UNU Public Affairs Section: Tel. (03) 5467-1243 & -1246; Fax (03) 3406-7346

Arsenic Crisis Today - Strategy for Tomorrow

3 July 2001
Winter Garden Sheraton Hotel, Dhaka

Co-organized by: U.N. University (Tokyo, Japan), Earth-Identity Project (Bangladesh)

10.00 - 10.15 A film presentation on the arsenic crisis in Bangladesh
10.15 - 11.00 Opening remarks
11.00 - 12.30
Session Chair: State Minister for Planning, Government of Bangladesh,
Dr. Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir
2.00 - 3.00 Inter-Agency and Inter-Ministerial Coordination
Session chaired jointly: Chairmen of the Parliamentary Standing Committees on LGRD, Health & Family Planning, Environment & Agriculture, Government of Bangladesh
3.00 - 4.30 Identification of Task Responsibilities
Session Chair: State Minister for Health & Family Planning, Government of
Bangladesh, Dr. M. Amanullah, MP
4.30 - 5.30 Awareness Raising
Session chair: State Minister for Information, Government of Bangladesh, Professor Abu Sayeed, MP
5.30 - 6.00 Closing Session
Session Chair: Deputy Minister for LGRD
Mr. Saber Hossain Chowdhury
6.00 Joint Declaration: U.N. Task Force on Arsenic and the Deputy Minister for Local Government/Rural Development (LGRD), witnessed by the Speaker, Parliament of Bangladesh, and the Standing Committees for LGRD, Health & Family Welfare, Forest & Environment.




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