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Arsenic Contaminated Groundwater Has Been Toxic To Bangladesh's Economy

By Emma McNeil - 02 Dec 2010 8:29:1 GMT
Arsenic Contaminated Groundwater Toxic To Bangladesh Economy

The arsenic contamination of drinking water in Bangladesh in the 1970s was dubbed by the World Health Organisation as the "largest mass poisoning of a population in history". The contamination, which led to large numbers of people suffering the effects of chronic arsenic poisoning, is not just responsible for disease and poor health in the region but has also had a devastating effect on Bangladesh's economy.

The problem of arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh began in the 1970s. In an attempt to improve public health shallow groundwater wells were installed throughout Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the building of the wells released naturally occurring arsenic into the groundwater. Initially, the population's health improved dramatically with the decline in waterborne pathogens. But, in 1993, it was realised that Bangladesh had a chronic arsenic poisoning problem. The full scale of the problem was not acknowledged until 2000.

New research published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics has shown just how significant this damage has been to Bangladesh's workforce and economy. Researchers including Richard Carson, professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, looked at the correlation between hours worked within households and the household members' arsenic exposure.

The group used data gathered from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 2000 survey data on  the workforce, Income and expenditure and compared it to information on arsenic contamination collected by the British geological survey

It seems that the arsenic contamination has reduced the labour supply in Bangladesh by 8%.  The working habits of households have also changed. Men between the ages of 25 and 65 are working more hours. But women older than 45 are working fewer hours. These women appear to be staying at home to look after the sick numbers of the household. Professor Carson said: "Essentially, what we think is happening is the grandma stayed home to take care of the sick people while all the able-bodied men are working longer hours to compensate."

The research appears to highlight the need for governments to resist the temptation to put economic progress ahead of their countries'  public and environmental health. Professor Carson said: "Environment is not a luxury. Our paper shows that the environmentally related health problems are sufficiently large to their holding back development"

Earlier this year a research team including scientists from Pohang University of science and technology, the University of California, University of Bern and the University of Zürich identified two genes in plant cells that control the accumulation and detoxification of arsenic. Ultimately, it is hoped that genetically modified plants could be used to clean soils heavily contaminated with arsenic.

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Topics: Pollution