The Biggest Mass Poisoning In History


For an Australian, it is difficult to describe the sense of spending a few days in a Bangladeshi village. You simply give up avoiding clichés: the colours and the smells, the friendliness of the people, the poverty, the amazing food, the call to prayers in this predominantly Muslim country, the pollution, the staring, the questions about cricket, the Bangla head wiggle.

Bangladesh has been described a number of times as the world’s "basket case" — a description originally attributed to US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.  It has a long history of violence, emerging, as India and Pakistan did, through forced partition that led to conflict and displacement.

It rates poorly in most of the UN’s quality of life indicators, ranking 146 overall, and suffers many natural disasters — the 2007 tsunami and cyclones, flooding and massive levels of soil erosion. For a country a third of the size of NSW but with a population of 150 million, the impact of disasters is nearly unimaginable.

There is another natural disaster that most of us are not aware of. Bangladesh is surrounded by water, but much of it is unfit for consumption.

Why is this the case? The available surface water is often heavily polluted by agricultural, domestic and industrial sources. Furthermore, through a geochemical twist, a large proportion of the accessible ground water is actually arsenic-affected. A large proportion of the population has been consuming this arsenic-affected water for up to 40 years.

The result? It is estimated that 77 million people In Bangladesh are now suffering from arsenic poisoning. That number is staggering, and has been described as the worst mass poisoning in history.

The arsenic is actually naturally occurring — and many have thrown up their hands to argue that this mass poisoning is simply a matter of fate and no one is to blame. But a more nuanced understanding of the situation shows that the real cause of the disaster is socially constructed.

Much of the water that flowed to form the Bengal delta where Bangladesh is now situated came from the Himalayas. Through rain, melting ice caps and erosion, the water that flowed down the mountains actually collected many different types of sediment, including some that contained arsenic. The water flowed down the major river systems, split into various tributaries, and arsenic eventually got deposited in the delta.

There it stayed, and for years the population drew water in many different ways that managed to avoid the arsenic.

This all changed in the 1960s, however, and there were two reasons why. The first was that the "green revolution" saw the farming community encouraged by the World Bank and United Nations to enter the global economy and start commercial level agriculture. There was a need for water, and so the population started accessing the ground water — which unbeknown to them, was arsenic affected — and the arsenic entered the food system.

Secondly, this led to the building of millions of shallow tube wells for drinking purposes — which become known as the "tube well revolution". This started in the 1970s as UNICEF and other agencies build 50-metre deep wells to give people access to safe drinking water. This was a process that continued until the 1990s, with the result being a slow poisoning of the population.

As someone who has worked with Aid/Watch and also studied the many failings of international aid projects, I have to say that this was the mother of all failures.

But things only got worse: when it was eventually discovered that many of the tube wells were poisoning the population, a testing process started. Those tube wells that were found to be arsenic-affected were painted red and the ones given the all clear, green.

There were two significant problems with this solution: the first was the at the population had no cultural reference to these colours; and the second, was that water moves, and what may be a clean tube well today may not be so in a few months time.

The next dimension of this socially created disaster is the fact that, according to Dr Zahed Masud from the Arsenic Mitigation and Research Foundation, who treats patients suffering from arsenicosis, 80 per cent of those affected are from poor communities. In fact, a healthy diet that will assist the body in coping with the poisoning is what is needed to treat the victims.

There is certainly a need for other medical treatments to deal with the symptoms such as infected wounds, but the essence of dealing with this crisis is a healthy diet. The problem, however, is that such a diet is not available to poor communities.

What appears to be a natural disaster is actually one constructed by us — and made worse by an economic system that celebrates the achievements of the few as the majority of the world’s population are left to suffer the consequences.

There are solutions to this mess: from the 250-metre deep tube wells that cost as little as AU$1000 to build (and which give up to 500 people access to clean drinking water) to more medically-trained paramedics to treat the sufferers.

The real solution, however, requires a more fundamental change to our economic system — but this is a solution that is never contemplated. While world powers seem to have little problem in finding hundreds of billions of dollars to wage wars, a global taxation and trade system that promotes sustainable livelihoods and a minimum wage seems just a little too optimistic.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.