Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a natural occurrence in many parts of the world. This problem becomes severe in the delta region of the Ganges. The high concentration of arsenic in deeper levels of groundwater is causing serious arsenic poisoning to a large number of people. Bangladesh which lies in this region is facing the highest brunt of the problem. The problem is compounded by the fact that it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world with very few people having access to portable drinking water.
It is estimated that there is accidental poisoning of as many as 85 million of its 125 million people with arsenic-contaminated drinking water which puts seven out of ten Bangladeshis in the danger zone. They are in serious threat of arsenicosis. Arsenicosis is a chronic disease with a significant latency period for non-cancer and cancer effects. The strongest epidemiological evidence on skin cancer effects comes from studies of arsenic contamination of drinking water. High levels of arsenic in drinking water are also associated with a number of internal cancers. Drinking water containing high concentration of arsenic also is responsible for lung and bladder cancer. The most widely noted non-cancer effects of chronic arsenic consumption are skin lesions. The first symptoms appear after initial exposure are hyper pigmentation (dark spots on the skin) and hypo pigmentation (white spots on the skin).Over time arsenic exposure is associated with keratosis on the hands and feet. Keratosis is a condition where the skin hardens and develops into raised wart-like nodules. Arsenic poisoning is also associated with peripheral vascular disease. This condition results in gangrene in the extremities and usually occurs in conjunction with skin lesions. Among cardiovascular problems hypertension and ischemic heart disease have been found to be associated with arsenic. Research into organ damage has concentrated mainly on the liver. The liver methylates inorganic arsenic that is consumed in drinking water. The resulting arsenic metabolites are excreted in the urine. Differences in methylating efficiency may be the reason for variations in arsenic retained in the body, and thus susceptibility to arsenic poisoning. The role of nutrition is an important factor in determining methylation efficiency and toxicity to arsenic retained in the body
Arsenicosis has a strong social dimension, affecting issues such as relationships within the family, and the mental health of the sick. Many arsenicosis sufferers have been ostracized at either the household or village level. There are so many cases where the patient suffering from skin lesions caused by arsenic poisoning in water whose children are unwilling to eat the food prepared by their own mother, and there are so many divorces because of the other partner is affected with serious arsenic poisoning. Social and gender relations thus pose additional threats to security and well being. It is essential to pay attention to these factors in assessing the effects of arsenicosis. The real impact on family and gender relations, and on livelihoods, of the stigma attached to arsenicosis sufferers.
According to the latest estimates about 1/3 of the tube wells in Bangladesh pump up water exceeding the arsenic standard of 50 ppb (parts per billion). In worst cases arsenic levels are alarmingly 2000 ppb or 40 times over the acceptable level for drinking water. It has been estimated that one out of five deaths in the South Asian nations is caused by arsenic. This figure runs into millions considering the high population density in the country.
Touching Souls International, a non profit organization is educating the local people by giving lectures, leaflets and CD in schools, colleges, market places to raise awareness about the arsenic contamination in drinking water and to save the people of Bangladesh from arsenic poisoning.
The main features of this arsenic awareness program contains the following:
1. Educating people not to fetch drinking water from the hand pumps which are marked red which are contaminated with arsenic.
2. Break the myth that boiling reduces arsenic content in water.
3. Encouraging people to fetch water from arsenic free sources such as surface water, like pond, river, well and rain water. Teaching people the basic drinking water purification techniques like bucket treatment to get arsenic free drinking water.
4. Saving patients from the social stigma and breaking the myth that arsenic poisoning is not contagious.
5. Educating the patients who are contaminated with arsenic to be on a diet to counter arsenic poisoning like food rich in protein with lots of vegetables, especially from cabbage family.
These awareness program of Touching Souls International have shown considerable results with the people being made aware of the gravity of the arsenic contamination in drinking water. A lot still has to be done to save Bangladesh from this deadly situation which is being touted by many as “largest mass poisoning in history”