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UBC Researcher Seeks Solution to Largest Mass Poisoning in History

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October 21, 2005

Source: University of British Columbia:

UBC Researcher Seeks Solution to Largest Mass Poisoning in History

A UBC geological engineer is looking for ways to alleviate daily arsenic poisoning of up to 80 million people in Bangladesh and India.

Roger Beckie, an Earth and Ocean Sciences associate professor and director of UBC’s Geological Engineering Program, has been studying the hydrology and geochemistry of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh and India for five years.

The level of arsenic found in the region’s groundwater -- water beneath the earth’s surface, typically available through wells and springs -- is up to ten times higher than the recommended United Nations limit. The World Health Organization, which estimated in 2000 that 60 per cent of Bangladesh’s 125 million population are at risk of drinking contaminated water that could cause skin cancer and other life-threatening diseases, calls it the largest mass poisoning in human history.

"The arsenic found in the groundwater is naturally occurring through normal geological processes," says Beckie, who, along with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has visited affected areas to investigate the exact cause of dangerously high levels of arsenic and look for cheap, viable solutions.

"Much of the phenomenon is still a mystery to us. We don’t know exactly why certain areas have much higher levels of arsenic than others, and how much of that is caused by human activities such as irrigation and farming."

Natural arsenic contamination is found in many countries including Argentina, Chile, China, Mexico, Thailand and the United States. The situation in Bangladesh is especially pronounced due to the number of people relying on groundwater as the main source of drinking water, says Beckie.

"It would be at least another decade before Bangladesh could have water purifying systems that are standard to the developed world," says Beckie. "By understanding the natural, and potentially man-made process that causes this phenomenon, we can provide safety guidelines."

Plagued by one of the world’s highest rates of waterborne diseases from surface water, the Bangladesh government instructed its people in the early 1990s to drink groundwater. While hospitals in the region are seeing a huge increase in the number of patients suffering from arsenicosis in the past decade, public awareness of the adverse affects of arsenic remains low.

The UBC Bangladesh Students’ Association has organized a public symposium to raise awareness of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh. Speakers include experts in the area from Harvard University, University of California, Berkeley, the University of Washington and UBC.

The Bangladesh arsenic poisoning symposium will be held on Oct. 24, 2-8 p.m. at the Life Sciences Centre at UBC. For more information, call 604.822.0839 or visit




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