Journal of Environmental science and Health

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The epidemic came into the limelight for the first time during the International Arsenic Conference held at Calcutta during February 1995. The statement ‘West Bengal is the worst arsenic affected place in the world’ was made. The magnitude of this calamity was often compared to that of the Chernobyl disaster. The grim arsenic situation of Bangladesh was declared. The International Arsenic Conference at Dhaka in February 1998 proclaimed that the disaster in Bangladesh was unprecedented by the world arsenic scenario. On the eve of this conference, World Bank declared that within a few years, death across much of southern Bangladesh (1 in 10 adults) could be the result of cancers triggered by arsenic. World Bank, UNICEF, and WHO agreed that Bangladesh and West Bengal were in a crisis regarding the arsenic problem.

The diabolic situation of these two nations had not been the effects of overnight callousness and misconception. It was the effect of years of ignorance and negligence. The organizations responsible to set up tubewells in these two nations had not paid enough attention towards testing the underground water quality. During the 80’s and 90’s, the foreign organization which tested the quality of tubewell water in Bangladesh did not even conduct the tests for arsenic. The organization did not test for arsenic during the 1992 survey either. Ironically, in 1989, the same organization tested for arsenic in a London aquifer. This certainly points at their share of responsibility towards today’s situation. Professional negligence from aid agencies towards developing countries was certainly not appreciable. The newspapers started publishing extensive articles on the arsenic issue in West Bengal from 1983 onwards. There are also instances of the devastating situation in West Bengal being reported on in the national as well as international research journals from 1987 onwards. It is worthwhile to mention that the UNICEF report of 1995 stated 25 million people in India were suffering from fluorosis, a disease caused by the consumption of underground water containing fluoride. This report by UNICEF supports that underground water may contain toxins, which may cause devastation. The number of fluorosis victims currently in India is a staggering 62 million. Now, arsenic in groundwater has caused similar devastation, if not more.

Before the beginning of the century there were 15 countries in the world that had arsenic contamination in water. Four countries, Bangladesh,West Bengal —India, China, and Taiwan, had populations that were suffering seriously. In fact, in the time span of only two years (2000 –2002) six more nations have found significant groundwater arsenic contamination.These are Cambodia, Lao People Democratic Republic, Pakistan, Myanmar,Vietnam, and Nepal.The International Arsenic Conference at San Diego (July 2002) brought out a new aspect of this debacle. For the first time the serious situation of Bihar (another state of India in Middle Ganga Plain), was confirmed. This new discovery reveals that a good portion of the Ganges Plain, with an area of about 530,831 sq.km., may be contaminated with arsenic.This area has a population of about 450 million (including Bangladesh)!

The actual scientific reasoning of how arsenic compounds and minerals in the sediment leached out of the source into the aquifer is not yet clear. Excessive use of underground water high in arsenic definitely has helped the devil ’s cause. During the last five years, arsenic has found its way into many tubewells that were tested as safe to drink.The level of arsenic has increased in many of the existing tubewells. In this circumstance, tubewells in the arsenic affected regions may not be reliable in the end. While arsenic is found in the alluvial sediment, other toxins may be present in non-alluvial region.For example, Birbhum and Bankura, districts of West Bengal, do not contain arsenic,but do contain fluoride. Moreover, other toxins could appear in the underground water in the future.These observations point to the need for a continuous critical evaluation of groundwater quality before its use in massive scale.

The ecological balance is a gift of Mother Nature herself. A sudden disruption to the natural system may bring serious unintended consequences.We know 40%of the world ’s population faces water shortages and by 2050, half the world will face the same.West Bengal and Bangladesh are abounding with hundreds of rivers, flooded river basins, ox-bow lakes, lagoons, ponds, and rainwater resources.But this ‘molten gold ’needs proper utilization. Proper watershed management with people ’s participation could not only eliminate the crisis but also could have signiicant impact on the economy. The world may learn from West Bengal and Bangladesh that such consequences may happen in any country that would use their natural resources indiscriminately without a critical scientific appraisal.

The purpose of this issue is to highlight the presence of arsenic in groundwater, its mining, and its detrimental effect on environment and human health.We hope that our effort to bring out this issue will help others to understand the present situation in terms of its occurrence in representative countries, health effects,and scientific approaches to study the health effects, chemical speciation, and mitigation approaches.We hope the scientific exposition will be useful to devise local, regional, and international management approaches towards solving the problem.

We would like to thank all those who participated so enthusiastically by contributing and collaborating on this issue.We are indebted to the chief editor Dr.Shahamat U.Khan for proposing this special issue and coordinating the final editing of the entire issue.This issue would not have been possible without Dr.Khan ’s personal interest and support.

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