Arsenic Poisoning in Bangladesh: The Clear and Present Danger

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls it the “biggest mass poisoning of a population in history”. There are millions of Bangladeshis exposed to poisonous arsenic from drinking water. Even rice and other crops irrigated with toxic water are in question. The rise of cancer, ulcers, gangrene, and painful warts are reported from various corners of Bangladesh those are directly linked to arsenic poisoning. WHO says that within the next decade one-tenth of all deaths in southern Bangladesh will be due to this arsenic crisis. That is about 20,000 deaths per year.

Will anyone be held responsible for this?

Arsenic, Microbes and Tragedy of Turtle Pace

Scientists observe that the arsenic poisoning in water is a natural phenomenon. Many of them believe that arsenic has been eroded naturally from the Himalayas by the Ganges over thousands of years and deposited amid silt in the river’s delta region. [3]

In the beginning, a few decades ago, due to the pollution on the surface water in Bangladesh, due to the rising cholera and typhoid and other water born diseases among the populace, especially the children, it was UNICEF that led the mass wells digging effort in Bangladesh. About 10 million or more wells now exist in Bangladesh from this massive effort. UNICEF’s original goal and intention were noble. They wanted to replace the polluted water sources, rivers and ponds that caused diseases and deaths among the populace.

In the time of distress, and arsenic is nothing but a full-blown catastrophe that is still materializing, one cannot stop wondering, is their any responsibilities that UNICEF should assume? Does the past and previous Bangladeshi government have any dubious roles in this tragedy? No saner person can accuse any purposeful, intentional maligns regarding arsenic crisis in Bangladesh, but is there any criminal negligence involved?

From the very beginning when this crisis came out to the public, UNICEF kept their points of opinion straight regarding their inability of identifying arsenic in any possible testing before undertaking the massive well-digging operations in Bangladesh. They maintain that at the time, standard procedures for testing the safety of groundwater did not include tests for arsenic [which] had never before been found in the kind of geological formations that exist in Bangladesh. [4]

Though there were alarming number of arsenic poisoning cases being reported across Bangladesh, as far as 1985 when ill Bangladeshis were crossing border to India for medical treatment, but the Government of Bangladesh maintains that it knew about the crisis from 1993. It took another two precious years before acknowledging the widespread arsenic problem. And it took a few more years for the international organizations before offering their monetary help in the battle against arsenic.

The British Geological Survey Saga

The British Geological Survey is in trouble. In May 2003, a British judge ruled that 750 Bangladeshi arsenic victims should be able to sue the British Geological Survey, or BGS, a British government-owned research body, for failing to spot the poison in wells sunk across Bangladesh over the past 20 years. [1] Fred Pearce, “Is the British Geological Survey Responsible for Massive Arsenic Poisoning in Bangladesh?” The Boston Globe, June 3, 2003.

[4] Fred Pearce, “Bangladesh’s Arsenic Poisoning: Who is to Blame?”, The Courier, Unesco, January 2001.

[6] “Bangladesh Study Rips Water”, Water Conditioning and Purification Magazine, February 2003: Volume 45, Number 2,

Mahbubul Karim (Sohel) is a freelance writer. He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Canada.