Bangladesh needs action on arsenic-tainted water: U.N.

DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh must act quickly to combat arsenic contamination in water and food affecting at least 20 million people, a U.N. agency said Monday, decades after a well-meant plan for clean water became a public health disaster.

A man collects stagnant water to wash cattle in the outskirts of Dhaka August 4, 2009. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

A recent survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) showed that 12.6 percent of Bangladesh households, or about 20 million people, still drink water containing arsenic above the government’s recommendation of no more than 50 micrograms per liter.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical poisonous to humans and is known to cause skin lesions and cancers of the bladder, kidney, lungs and skin.

Bangladesh has set a target of supplying safe water for all its people by 2011. A report by environment experts on arsenic contamination was released in Dhaka Monday.

“Urgent action is needed to re-focus the attention of the nation toward an arsenic-safe environment,” said Renata Lok Dessallien, U.N. resident coordinator in Bangladesh.

“Concerted efforts by the government and all stakeholders are necessary to reinvigorate arsenic monitoring and mitigation efforts and conduct comprehensive research on emerging threats.”

Millions of small tube wells were dug across Bangladesh from the late 1970s, with the help of international agencies like UNICEF, as an answer to dirty surface water which caused widespread gastrointestinal diseases.

Organic carbon can trigger the release of arsenic from sediments into groundwater. Studies have recommended against using groundwater in man-made ponds and rice fields.

“We have taken steps to ensure the proper management of surface water, including rainwater conservation,” agriculture minister Matia Chowdhury told reporters.

“We will have to augment the use of surface water and simultaneously limit the use of both surface and groundwater to reduce accumulation of arsenic in crops and food sources,” Chowdhury said.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Bangladesh suffer from skin lesions and experts have warned for years that Bangladesh can expect more cases of cancer if its people continue drinking arsenic-contaminated water.

According to the World Health Organization, arsenic-contaminated water directly affects the health of 35 million people in Bangladesh.

Arsenic is widely distributed throughout the earth’s crust and is introduced into water through the dissolution of minerals and ores.

Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Anis Ahmed and Paul Tait