Experts on a five-year research programme, financed by the Columbia University of the United States and formally launched last month, are confident of identifying the cause of arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh.
"This research and study might also help to invent a way to free the water from arsenic," said Dr Martin Stute, an associate professor of the Earth Science Institute of the university.
Dr Stute leads a nine-member team of experts engaged in analysis of groundwater within 25 square kilometres of Araihazar Sadar, Brahmandi and Dhuptara unions of Araihazar thana in Narayanganj.
Araihazar has been chosen as the research site because groundwater in most areas of the thana is contaminated with arsenic. Water extracted from 60 per cent of the tube-wells contains arsenic content way beyond the permissible level.
The "Health Effect and Geochemistry of Arsenic and Lead" project, financed entirely by the Columbia University, is two-dimensional. One group of experts is analysing the health effect of arsenic contamination and the other the geochemistry of the land under the project's purview.
Main objectives of the project is to identify the cause of arsenic contamination of groundwater in the area, develop a method to remove arsenic from groundwater and cure the people already affected by the deadly poison.
Along with Columbia University researchers, local experts and physicians, students of Dhaka University's geology department are also working in the project. Dr Kazi Matin of the Department of Geology, Dhaka University is assisting experts from Columbia University working on the geo-chemical aspect of the problem while Dr Iftikhar Hussain leads research on the health aspect.
The project was conceived back in March last year when experts at the Columbia University detected presence of arsenic beyond permissible level in water extracted from 5,000 tube-wells. The university decided to undertake a full-scale research programme after close examinations of available data.
Initially, the 5,000 tested tube-wells were divided into six groups according to degree of contamination, with a tag put on each denoting the level of arsenic in its water.
During a recent visit, members of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh (FEJB) found out that sophisticated equipment linked to satellite are used to examine groundwater at Darishatabandi, a village under Araihazar thana.
Seven monitoring tube-wells have been installed at the depth of 20, 30, 40, 50, 100, 120 and 140 feet respectively, Dr Stute told the FEJB reporters.
Another production deep tube-well has been set up at 300 feet. The idea is to study the degree of arsenic contamination in different layers of the ground aquifer.
He said that they would also identify the causes of mobilisation of arsenic in groundwater.
Dr Martin said that the team so far collected samples from 30 wells for geo-chemical examination. The samples will be sent to the Columbia University for final examination, he added.
Chief of health-related activities in the Bangladesh chapter of the project, Dr AZM Iftikhar Hussain told reporters that blood and urine samples are being collected from people in the project areas and shipped monthly to laboratories at the university.
Data is being also compiled using a 21-page questionnaire, he added. Besides, experts are also trying to find out whether the arsenic has link with nutrition or genes.
Dr Iftikhar informed that they have decided to set up a clinic within a couple of months in the project area to provide treatment to arsenic-affected people. He said appropriate measures would be taken after the geo-chemical survey and test.
He said six health teams are working, taking interview as well as collecting data from people of the three union in Araihazar thana to identify affected people. The objective is to find out how fast arsenicosis spreads, he pointed out.
Also, the experts are trying to find out whether arsenic crosses the placental barrier and harms the foetus and also to assess the effects on the cognitive development in young children.
Source: The Daily Star, 3 February 2001