Scientists Urge Revised Policies to Address Arsenic Problem in Bangladesh


Alexander van Geen, Doherty Senior Researcher with the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia, assembles a needle-sampler in Araihazar, Bangladesh to test well water for arsenic. Recent estimates show that over 100 million people in rural South Asia, from India to Vietnam, regularly use water containing unsafe levels of arsenic.

An international group of scientists are suggesting new priorities for the next government of Bangladesh to advance the country's fight against naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater. In an article entitled “Ensuring Safe Drinking Water in Bangladesh,” they urge a major revision of government policy following upcoming elections. Their work appeared in the December 15 issue of the journal Science.

Using data from various government and non-governmental sources, as well as behavioral surveys conducted in Bangladesh by Columbia University scientists, the authors argue that greater emphasis must be placed on repeated testing of existing and new wells, rather than seeking to expand other approaches to mitigation such as arsenic removal or surface water treatment that have had a very limited impact to date. They also back government support for the use of deep aquifers that are low in arsenic and for including information in public outreach campaigns about the newly demonstrated effects of arsenic on the mental development of children.

These conclusions present a consensus view that resulted from a series of discussions among an international group of scientists coordinated by Lex van Geen, a Doherty Senior Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, following a meeting of the American Chemical Society earlier this year. The lead author, Feroze Ahmed, is a professor of civil engineering at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and has advised two successive governments on arsenic mitigation. Martin Stute, professor and chair of the Environmental Science Department at Barnard College, and Alex Pfaff, an economist with The Earth Institute at Columbia also contributed.