- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

CALCUTTA — Kalpana Mondal had a perfectly happy family life until the calluses started appearing on her skin three years after her marriage. Soon, sores lacerated her palms, and wartlike growths developed on her feet.

She began walking with a limp and most members in her husband’s large extended family in the village near Calcutta refused to accept food from her disfigured hands.

After examining her, doctors diagnosed Kalpana Mondal as a victim of arsenic poisoning and said it was caused by drinking contaminated water in her native village on the India-Bangladesh border since childhood.

Her husband and some of his relatives said the disease had left her “so ugly” that she could not live with the family anymore. Some neighbors believed she had leprosy, a disease that brings immediate isolation in Hindu society.

Soon, the 30-year-old woman was sent back to her parents with her year-old daughter, and her husband said she could only return to him if she were cured.

Four years after the separation from her husband, Kalpana’s physical condition has worsened, with festering patches developing on other parts of her body. Her hope of returning to her husband has been crushed, likely forever.

Now, as her illness takes away her ability to work, Kalpana lives like a beggar in the home of her widowed mother, depending on the charity of relatives and others.

“If my daughter were not with me, I would have committed suicide by now,” she said.

Subhash Dutta, an environmental activist in Calcutta said: “Hundreds of such ‘arsenic divorces’ have taken place in India and Bangladesh in the last decade. In some cases, the ostracized women committed suicide. In the arsenic-hit areas of both countries, there are thousands of young women who cannot be married because of the ‘ugly’ marks of arsenicosis they carry on their bodies.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 35 million to 77 million people drinking water from shallow tube wells in Bangladesh and India are exposed to high levels of arsenic in drinking water, and within a few years as many as 270,000 of them may die from cancer and other diseases caused by arsenic.

The issue is at the forefront of WHO’s campaigns for clean water.

[A tube well is made by drilling or pounding a tube into the ground to a stratum that bears water. A dug well is made by excavating with hand tools or power machinery. How the well is made does not affect the arsenic content of the water, but tube wells abound on the densely populated land near the Bay of Bengal, and one may provide water of high arsenic content while the water from another nearby is safer to drink.]

In 2000, Allan H. Smith, a WHO consultant and professor of epidemiology at the University of California at Berkeley, called the poisonings “a terrible public catastrophe.”

“Bangladesh is grappling with the largest mass poisoning of a population in history,” he said.

Dr. Smith said the scale of this environmental disaster is “beyond the accidents at Bhopal, India, in 1984, and Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986.” His research group calls it “the worst mass poisoning in human history.”

This month, as a team of Indian, Bangladeshi and British scientists claimed to have solved the mystery of how groundwater becomes contaminated with arsenic, hopes have risen of finding an easy way to cleanse the contaminated groundwater over a vast region.

Arsenic is a gray, semi-metallic element found combined with other elements in several naturally occurring minerals. When heated, the solid form turns into a gas without passing through a liquid stage.

In a report published in the journal Nature, scientists said they had found bacteria that can strip naturally occurring arsenic from the soil, which then leaches into groundwater.

Jonathan Lloyd, a geo-microbiologist at the University of Manchester, England, who led the team of scientists from India, Bangladesh and Britain, said their discovery could eventually save millions of lives around the world.

The scientists, who conducted the study on soil and water samples collected from a contaminated aquifer in the Indian state of West Bengal, reported that without bacterial activity, the arsenic would remain insoluble and could not contaminate the water.

But many public health experts working in Bangladesh and India said that they had no interest in any discovery if it did not provide a direct and foolproof method to decontaminate the tainted groundwater across the vast region.

“Unless they happen to invent an airtight method [to remove the arsenic from water] and we find it widely useful and economic for the poor masses in the region, the news of such discovery is meaningless to us,” said Nazma Rabbani, an executive of the Bangladesh Arsenic Control Society.

Although arsenic has been found in water in Nepal, China, Taiwan, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Mongolia and some other countries around the world, the contamination in Bangladesh and eastern India has reached the highest level.

Dipankar Chakraborti, a leading researcher at Calcutta’s Jadavpur University, said at least 30 million people in Bangladesh and 5 million more in eastern Indian states are drinking water with arsenic contamination at 50 parts per billion (ppb) — five times the WHO’s permissible limit.

[In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted the 10 ppb standard in January 2001 and public water systems must comply with it by Jan. 23, 2006. Later, the EPA issued a clarification saying that when a monitoring result is expressed in milligrams per liter (mg/l) rather than ppb, any monitoring result greater than 0.010 mg/l is a violation of the January 2001 arsenic standard.]

“In Bangladesh and India, tens of thousands of people are still drinking water from those tube wells where arsenic levels have reached” 50 to 100 times the WHO’s permissible limit, Dr. Chakraborti said.

“At least 200,000 cases of debilitating skin lesions are believed to have already occurred in this region,” he added.

Long-term exposure to arsenic-contaminated drinking water can cause skin lesions, as well as cancers of the skin, lungs, kidneys and bladder and many other diseases. Arsenicosis has already killed hundreds of people in Bangladesh and India.

In a UNICEF-led campaign during the 1970s, 10 million shallow tube wells were drilled in Bangladesh and everyone was advised to drink water from them to protect themselves from water-borne diseases like cholera that generate epidemics. But the switch from traditional dug wells to tube wells proved fatal in 1993 when arsenic was detected in water from tube wells in Bangladesh.

Since 1980s, scientists around the world have trying to determine how mineral arsenic enters the aquifers.

The lead author of the latest study, Farhana Islam of Bangladesh, a female researcher at the University of Manchester, said: “This research means we now have a much better idea of how arsenic is released into drinking water and aquifers in the region.

“The results will help to inform ways of [detoxifying] the water, leading to a healthier supply for thousands of people.”

Dr. Lloyd and his team found that bacterial activity around a contaminated aquifer was very high when there was little oxygen in the water but abundant carbon. They believe that reversing the proportions of these two elements could reduce the leaching of arsenic into the water, and one simple way might be by pumping air through the contaminated groundwater.

However, some leading South Asian researchers believe decontamination of the groundwater may not be so easy.

“Although detecting the actual cause of contamination of the water is a big step forward in the fight against arsenic, the idea of decontamination suggested by the study would be difficult to implement over a vast region, as in South Asia,” said Dr. Chakraborti who has been researching arsenic in water for two decades.

“Also, it was a lab-based study — far from the field, where many other factors are at play. So the remediation technique the research is suggesting may not prove useful in the field,” he said.

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