A. M. K. Chowdhury
Arsenic in its inorganic form is a highly toxic substance which is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater of a number of countries. The WHO says, contaminated water used for drinking, food preparation and irrigation of food crops poses the greatest threat to public health from arsenic. Long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking-water and food can cause cancer and skin lesions. It has also been associated with developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.
The most important action in affected communities is the prevention of further exposure to arsenic by provision of a safe water supply. A natural component of the earth’s crust, arsenic is widely distributed throughout the environment in the air, water and land.
People are exposed to elevated levels of inorganic arsenic through drinking contaminated water, using contaminated water in food preparation and irrigation of food crops, industrial processes, eating contaminated food and smoking tobacco.
PM on UN High-level Panel on Water
It is good to learn that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been appointed as a member of the United Nations (UN) High-level Panel on Water. UN Secretary General Ban Ki- moon and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim formally announced the appointment of 10 heads of state and government, as well as two special advisers to the panel.
Apart from Sheikh Hasina, the other newly appointed panel members are: Ameenah Gurib, president of Mauritus (co-chair), Enrique Pene Nieto, president of Mexico (co-chair), Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister of Australia, Janos Ader, president of Hungary, Abdullah Ensour, prime minister of Jordan,Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, Macky Sall, president of Senegal, and Emomali Rahmon, president of Tajikistan. The two special advisers are Han Seung – soo, former prime minister of South Korea and Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, minister of state for the environment of Peru.
The UN panel on water, which is aimed at mobilizing effective action to accelerate the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last January. The SDG 6 focuses on ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, at a time of unprecedented challenges.
43,000 Bangladeshis killed every year
The UN chief urged all partners to mobilize SDG 6 with political, financial and technological support. This was reported in the media on April 23, 2016. A news report said that some 20 million poor Bangladeshis are still drinking water contaminated with arsenic, two decades after the potentially deadly toxin was discovered in the supply. Bangladesh has failed to take the basic steps needed to tackle the problem, which kills an estimated 43,000 Bangladeshis every year, mostly in poor rural areas. Bangladesh has been building deep tube wells to source water from beneath the arsenic-tainted soil.
Proper government oversight needed
But Human Rights Watch (HRW) said there was no proper government oversight of the scheme, with politicians earmarking the new wells for their own supporters rather than putting them in the worst affected areas. The UN’s World Health Organization has called Bangladesh’s arsenic crisis “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.” Chronic exposure to arsenic is linked to cancers of the liver, kidney, bladder and skin as well as heart disease. HRW said many victims in Bangladesh had no access to health care. It warned that millions of Bangladeshis would die unless the government and international donors act to mitigate contamination. Arsenic – laced water may also cause miscarriages, low birth weights and poor cognitive development in children.
Around 210,000 tube wells installed
The government has installed around 210,000 tube wells over the past 12 years to mitigate the crisis and is testing the water from millions of shallow wells for contamination. In 2013 an investigation into the high levels of arsenic in Bangladesh’s ground water fuelled suspicions that eating rice boosts exposure to the poison. After testing thousands of volunteers, scientists found that those wh ate large amounts of rice had high levels of arsenic in their urine than those who ate little rice. (The Daily Observer, dated April 7, 2016)
Earlier expressing concern over the uncertainty in people’s life and livelihood created due to problems in the water sector speakers at a seminar entitled ‘Recognizing works in water’ organized By WASA, NGO Forum for Public Health, WASH Alliance, World Bank Group, WSSCC and UNICEF urged for taking necessary steps to solve the problems by ensuring adequate water supply, including safe water for all.
The life and livelihoods of the people and economy revolves round water. Safe water is vital for creating jobs and livelihoods, and shortage of safe water and the gradual disappearances of water bodies have created serious problems for life and people they said. Though Bangladesh improved access to drinking water from 68 percent to 87 percent by 2015, almost 20 million people still lack access to this life saving resources. Enough quantity and quality of water can change people’s lives and livelihoods and even transform societies and economies, by taking necessary steps for increasing supply of safe water and protecting the water bodies, they suggested. (The Holiday, dated April 1, 2016).
The Daily Star in its editorial on April 28, 2016 said as the sweltering heat makes life intolerable for Dhaka dwellers, a severe water crisis has made things go from bad to worse for residents of Dhanmondi,Indira Road, Senpara Parbata and Old Dhaka. In other parts of town, such as Bashabo, Madertek. Mugda, Tantibazar and West Rajabazar, residents have to make do with dirty and smelly water. If the water shortage was a one – off occurrence, the residents might have found a temporary solution, but in many areas, the water supply had been in a state of suspension for two weeks straight. Moreover, residents are also having to put up with frequent load shedding in this unbearable heat. The power cuts are aggravating the water shortage even further.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been appointed as a member of the UN High-Level Panel on Water. It is a prestigious appointment. But some 20 million poor Bangladeshis are still drinking water contaminated with arsenic.
We hope the government will take effective measures to adopt a planned water management system to overcome drought, flood and river erosion and ensure adequate safe water supply for all.
Chronic arsenic poisoning
Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic, mainly through drinking of contaminated water, eating of food prepared with this water and eating food irrigated with arsenic-polluted water, can lead to chronic arsenic poisoning. Skin lesions and skin cancer are the most characteristic effects.
The greatest threat to public health from arsenic originates from contaminated groundwater. Inorganic arsenic is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater of a number of countries, including Argentina, Bangladesh, Chile, China, India, Mexico, and the United States of America. Drinking-water, crops irrigated with contaminated water and food prepared with contaminated water are the sources of exposure.
Fish, shellfish, meat, poultry, dairy products and cereals can also be dietary sources of arsenic, although exposure from these foods is generally much lower compared to exposure through contaminated groundwater. In seafood, arsenic is mainly found in its less toxic organic form.Arsenic is used industrially as an alloying agent, as well as in the processing of glass, pigments, textiles, paper, metal adhesives, wood preservatives and ammunition. Arsenic is also used in the hide tanning process and, to a limited extent, in pesticides, feed additives and pharmaceuticals.
Inorganic arsenic content of tobacco
People who smoke tobacco can also be exposed to the natural inorganic arsenic content of tobacco because tobacco plants essentially take up arsenic naturally present in the soil. Also, in the past, the potential for elevated arsenic exposure was much greater when tobacco plants used to be treated with lead arsenate insecticide.
Arsenic occurs in inorganic and organic forms. Inorganic arsenic compounds (such as those found in water) are highly toxic while organic arsenic compounds (such as those found in seafood) are less harmful to health.