Apr. 17, 2000

Columbia Researches Join Forces To Address Arsenic Crisis In Bangladesh

By Kurt Sternlof

Lamont-Doherty research scientist Len van Geen, center, analyzing tube well water in Bangladesh with the prototype of a new field-kit for arsenic.

A devastating human health crisis now unfolding in Bangladesh has led a wide-ranging group of Columbia scientists to pool their talents in search of answers and solutions that work.

An estimated 40 to 50 million people throughout the impoverished Asian nation are currently exposed to toxic levels of arsenic in drinking water from the country's approximately 6 million private and public wells. Many adults have been drinking the arsenic-tainted water their entire lives--water that can exceed accepted health standards by as much as 10 times.

Arsenic poisoning is cumulative over time, with symptoms ranging from skin lesions, respiratory illnesses and eye problems, to a host of cancers, cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, birth defects, miscarriage and death. And in a sadly ironic twist, well use in Bangladesh has been heavily promoted since the 1960s by international relief organizations and the government alike as the preferable alternative to surface-water supplies commonly contaminated with bacteria.

"This heart-breaking situation in Bangladesh probably constitutes the greatest human health calamity of the past century," said Joe Graziano, Columbia professor of public health. "The problem there is so vast that is needs to be tackled on every possible front."

Having just won a five-year grant for approximately $11 million from the U.S. Superfund Hazardous Substances Basic Research program, Graziano is directing just such a multi-pronged Columbia attack that teams 24 researchers from the Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the College of Physicians & Surgeons, and the Krumb School of Mines. Within Bangladesh, the Columbia group is collaborating with both the National Institute of Preventive and Social Medicine and the Department of Geology of Dhaka University.

The overall Columbia project, entitled Health Effects and Geochemistry of Arsenic and Lead, also includes several investigations within the United States, where arsenic contamination is present as the result of human activity at most Superfund sites. But the primary focus is on Bangladesh.

"The enormous and pressing nature of the Bangladesh crisis absolutely requires an 'all-hands-on-deck' type of approach," Graziano said. "And that's just what we're giving it earth science, health science, engineering, even sociology. At the same time, what we learn there about arsenic and how to address it will prove invaluable in dealing with similar situations around the world."

Although the grant funding will not begin to flow until June 1, the earth sciences component of the effort is already well underway, thanks to timely seed and start-up funding provided by the Columbia Earth Institute, according to Associate Project Director and Lamont scientist Alexander Van Geen.

"The Earth Institute invested money in mounting pilot studies that were absolutely essential to our winning this grant," Van Geen said. "And once grant funding became likely, CEI provided more money to get us rolling. Now we'll really be able to hit the ground running come June 1st."

A representative study area comprising 5,000 wells near the central city of Dhaka was selected during the pilot-study phase. Already about a third of these wells have been sampled. At the same time, detailed information about the family or group using each well is being collected using a specially designed questionnaire. This preliminary data will be used as the starting point for the health-related studies, as well as the geological and engineering effort to understand why the arsenic is there, how it is distributed, and what can be done about it.

But because the contamination appears to emanate from a pervasive, yet highly variable natural source, any long-term solution to the problem will likely include wide-spread sharing of water from clean sources. And the ultimate success of that approach will depend as much on market economics and public policy as anything.

"Fortunately, we also have the expertise of the School of International and Public Affairs and the Economics Department on which to draw," Graziano said. "And with additional support from the Earth Institute, we already are doing just that."