Why Does Exposure to Arsenic from Drinking Groundwater in Asian Megadeltas Continue to be High?
Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 9:30 AM
Concentrations of arsenic in groundwater pumped from a significant fraction of the millions of shallow tubewells installed, mostly privately, across S/SE Asia exceed the WHO guideline value of 10 ug/L by a factor of 10 to 100. The resulting exposure has been linked to cancers and cardio-vascular disease in adults and inhibited intellectual function in children. In Bangladesh, the most affected country, the impact of early mitigation efforts relying on water treatment has been limited by the cost and logistics of maintenance. A simpler approach based on switching human consumption to low-arsenic wells has proved to be more resilient although it remains far from sufficiently adopted. A decade ago, there was concern that low-arsenic wells might become contaminated upon use. Observations and modeling have since shown that groundwater arsenic concentrations are likely to rise only in certain hydrogeologically vulnerable areas and then only gradually. Our recently completed blanket-testing campaign of 50,000 wells in 300 villages of Bangladesh has shown that, instead, a leading cause of current exposure is that households have continued to install wells and typically have nowhere to turn for a reliable arsenic test. The same campaign has shown that another reason for continued exposure is that deeper wells that are low in arsenic and whose installation has been subsidized by the Bangladesh government are not located to maximize public access. The geographic clustering of these deep wells suggests that, all too often, their location is decided on the basis of political allegiance rather than need. Such obstacles to lowering arsenic exposure might be overcome with more widespread testing and the public posting of maps of test results also showing where deep wells have been installed. We will show that obtaining and sharing such information has been greatly facilitated by a reliable field-kit for arsenic and the increasing use of smartphones in Bangladesh.