News Archive

posted 10/31/01

Van Geen Wins NSF Grant for Arsenic Testing Device
by Jennifer Freeman

An interdisciplinary team of Columbia scientists led by Doherty Senior Research Scientist Alexander van Geen has received a National Science Foundation grant worth approximately $100,000 to further research on toxic levels of arsenic found in well water in Bangladesh. The grant was awarded by the NSF Biocomplexity in the Environment program, under the heading, Instrumentation Development for Environmental Activities (IDEA).

The grant will enable van Geen and his team to develop and test two portable instruments designed to measure arsenic levels and sediment structures in the field. At least 25 million people in Bangladesh are currently exposed to poisonous arsenic levels by drinking groundwater from millions of hand-operated tube wells. Ironically, tube wells in Bangladesh were initially dug with international development funding in an effort to lower infant mortality from microbially contaminated surface water.

Doherty Senior Research Scientist Lex van Geen, center, analyzing well water in Arahaizar Upazila with the prototype of a new field-kit for arsenic -- part of a 5-year epidemiological and earth science study of the arsenic crisis in Bangladesh funded by the Superfund Basic Research Program.

The Columbia Earth Institute is at the center of a 5-year, $11 million interdisciplinary initiative to understand and address the arsenic problem in Bangladesh and in the U.S. This initiative is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Basic Research program administered by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and by Columbia University and includes seven different research projects. The work of van Geen and his colleagues led to the realization that measurements of dissolved arsenic and of the sediment structure in existing wells could significantly contribute to ongoing remediation efforts.

Arsenic concentrations in the ground water in Bangladesh can vary greatly within very small spaces due to the way in which geological formations under the Ganges/Brahmaputra delta evolved. Van Geen hopes the new tools will improve understanding of how arsenic levels in ground water relate to sediment structure, and how these are linked with other potential variables, such as monsoon runoff and irrigation.

"As a complement to our current work in Bangladesh, we hope to develop and test two portable devices that measure key properties of the subsurface by taking advantage of the enormous array of existing tube wells. At the same time, we will begin to develop the statistical tools needed to interpret and integrate the complex data sets that can be generated with these instruments," van Geen said.

The arsenic detection device is being developed in conjunction with Professor Pietro Perona, director of the California Institute of Technology’s Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering, as part of the Center’s outreach program.

"Along with our colleagues from Cal Tech, we intend to set the stage for a full-scale, 5-year, NSF Biocomplexity proposal for the spring of 2002 aimed at improving our fundamental understanding of the complex set of interactions, including microbial and societal factors, that have resulted in a human tragedy of staggering dimension," he added.

In addition to van Geen, other members of the award-winning Columbia team include: Associate Research Scientist Roelof Versteeg, Adjunct Associate Research Scientist Yan Zheng, and Adjunct Research Scientist Martin Stute of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory as well as Professor of Statistics Andrew Gelman of Columbia University.

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is the leading research center in the world examining the planet from its core to its atmosphere, across every continent and every ocean. From global climate change to earthquakes, volcanoes, environmental hazards, and beyond, LDEO scientists continue to provide the basic knowledge of earth systems that must inform the difficult choices needed to maintain the health and habitability of our planet. For more information, visit


The Columbia Earth Institute

The Mailman School of Public Health

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Previous News summarizing the basic arsenic project.

For information on Arsenic in Drinking Water: An International Conference being held at Columbia University on November 26 & 27, 2001, sponsored by the Columbia Superfund Basic Research Program administered by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, visit:

About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit