Drinking water contaminated with arsenic has been linked to one out of every five deaths in Bangladesh where up to half of its 150 million people have guzzled poisoned water. New research looks at how drinking arsenic-contaminated water shaves years off people’s lives. It is "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history," says The World Health Organization, as the desperately poor country digs several new wells a day, without testing the water for Arsenic. "The magnitude of the arsenic problem is 50 times worse than Chernobyl," said Richard Wilson, president of the Arsenic Foundation. "But it doesn't have 50 times the attention paid to it."
The problem started when 10 million shallow hand-pump wells were sunk across the country in the 1970s to provide clean drinking water to help prevent deadly waterborne diseases, such as cholera. But the wells, paid for by international donations, tapped into arsenic deposits in the ground, releasing toxin into water for drinking and cooking. People can’t taste, smell, or see the colourless poison linked to cancers, liver ailments, skin diseases and heart problems, so they don’t know they are drinking it. Victims get sick slowly, and over years, their skin becomes speckled with tiny black or white dots.
For 10 years, researchers followed 12,000 people in the country's Araihazar region. They found that even low doses of arsenic in drinking water could up the chances of early death. The study out in the Lancet medical Journal last week also found that the damage was lasting. "It's similar to tobacco smoking. Once you smoke for 20 years and then you stop smoking, your risk of getting tobacco-induced cancer over the next decade will still be high,” said the writer, Habibul Ahsan from the University of Chicago's Center for Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. "Even if, say, for some miracle all the individuals are provided arsenic-free water from tomorrow, these people will also be at a higher risk of dying for many years to come," he told Associated Press news service.
More than three quarters of the people studied were drinking arsenic-contaminated water above WHO's recommended safe limits. One fifth of the 407 adult deaths were linked to arsenic. Arsenic poisoning happens in about 70 countries, including the US, Chile, Vietnam and Cambodia. But the biggest problem is in Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest nations, where half the people live on just $1 a day.