Some 20 million Bangladeshis exposed to arsenic-laced drinking water, 43,000 die a year

For the World Health Organisation, this is “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history”. A report from Human Rights Watch documents the crisis, which began in the 1970s. Out of 66 districts, 61 are affected. An estimated 1 and 5 million of the 90 million children to be born between 2000 and 2030 might die from exposure to the poison.

Dhaka (AsiaNews) – Some 20 million Bangladeshis have been exposed to arsenic-contaminated water, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.

A new report by Richard Pearshouse, a senior HRW researcher, says that about 65,000 people are currently suffering from arsenic-related diseases.

It also found that exposure to arsenic-laced water kills an estimated 43,000 Bangladeshis each year, mostly in poor rural areas that lack access to clean surface water.

What is more, “some national and local politicians divert [. . .] new wells to their political supporters and allies, instead of the people who need them most,” the HRW said.

The problem dates back to the 1970s, when the Bangladesh government drilled millions of shallow tube wells to provide villagers with clean water – not realising that the soil was heavily laced with naturally occurring arsenic.

A source told AsiaNews that water in 61 districts out of 66 districts is still contaminated by arsenic.

HRW’s 111-page report entitled Nepotism and Neglect: The Failing Response to Arsenic in the Drinking Water of Bangladesh’s Rural Poor was unveiled on Wednesday in Dhaka.

The government says it has installed around 210,000 deep tube wells over the past 12 years to mitigate the crisis.

AsiaNews’s source confirmed that the authorities monitor the wells, and mark those that contain arsenic, urging people not to use them. “However, they should do more.”

According to the UN’s World Health Organisation, Bangladesh’s arsenic crisis is “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history”.

Chronic exposure to arsenic is linked to cancers of the liver, kidney, bladder and skin as well as heart disease.

Even though drinking arsenic-contaminated water can cause cardiovascular diseases, the impact of past and current exposure to arsenic on people’s health is being largely ignored within Bangladesh’s health system.

Depending on progress of ending exposure, between 1 and 5 million of the 90 million children estimated to be born between 2000 and 2030 could die due to exposure to arsenic in drinking water.