Monday, March 26, 2007

"Largest poisoning of a population in history"

That would be the ongoing crisis caused by arsenic-laden groundwater in many parts of the state of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The latest issue of Science has a story about the dangers (probably pay-walled) the people in these parts have already been exposed to, and about the lack of a vigorous response from the Central and State governments. Some excerpts:

Although there are no reliable statistics on arsenic victims in India and Bangladesh, one research group has counted at least 14,000 cases of arsenicosis in West Bengal alone. The arsenic scourge, says Allan Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is the "largest poisoning of a population in history."

It didn't have to turn out this way--certainly not in India, whose government frequently touts the country's burgeoning science and technology capacity. Here in West Bengal, officials have had a quarter-century to tackle the contamination. (Bangladesh learned of the threat a decade later.) Yet the government failed to investigate it adequately or provide alternative water resources to affected areas, critics charge. "For many years, government officials accused us of lying and exaggerating the problem," says dermatologist Kshitish Saha, who uncovered the first cases of arsenicosis while at the School of Tropical Medicine in Kolkata.