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Poison on tap in Bangladesh

Cuts and scars on the hands are the first signs of poisoning (Maatrik) swissinfo.ch

The Swiss Red Cross (SRC) has teamed up with local and international aid agencies to help avert a health crisis in Bangladesh.

This content was published on March 20, 2003 - 10:50

Wells contaminated with arsenic have put tens of millions of people at risk of poisoning.

Nagaskanda is one of villages where the SRC is active. It's rural community in the picturesque district of Faridpur, some 70km west of the capital, Dhaka.

Rivers, canals, ponds and paddy fields criss-cross the plains. Bright saris worn by local women splash colour on the countryside that turns various shades of green as you leave the shantytowns of Dhaka behind.

Standing in front of a water pump painted red, Joso Dharani and Anjuli are so far the only two people in the village to have been poisoned by arsenic.

"They told us not to drink water from the red wells," the chattier woman explains.

"But now in order to be cured from arsenic poisoning, we need to eat more meat and vegetables. How are we meant to do that, when it's a struggle just to buy rice?"

In the 160 villages where the SRC is operating, 90 per cent of water pumps are painted red.

Deadly

Relatively little is known about the effects of arsenic, except that it's a deadly poison that slowly attacks its victims before finally killing them.

The first symptoms of poisoning are cuts and scars on the skin, leading to respiratory and cardio-vascular problems before finally resulting in various forms of cancer.

At present, there is no specific treatment for arsenic poisoning. During its early stages, the disease can disappear simply by refraining from drinking contaminated water.

Proteins and certain vitamins can also help the body fight against it.

Sanitation committees

"We don't want to come here with ready-made solutions," explains Karl Schuler, head of information for SRC's international programmes.

Instead, Schuler explains that sanitation committees are set up in every village.

"Our first task is to educate people," said Shaheen Akhtar, a local doctor with the SRC. "After we told them that the pumps were infected, we have to instruct them not to use the water."

It is difficult to convey the dangers of a poison that is invisible and odourless, but that can build up in the body for years before becoming noticeable, he says.

"Gaining people's confidence and allowing them to participate in projects is certainly the best way of going about things," said Han Heijan, health counsellor for the World Health Organisation.

"But the question is how to reach 160,000 villages when these methods are so far only used in 160."

Akhtar says that, surprisingly, the majority of the volunteers on the sanitation committee are women.

"It's an opportunity for women in conservative regions like this one. Our country cannot solve its health problems without their involvement."

No water

Once tests have been completed and wells marked with either red [dangerous] or green [drinkable] paint, some villagers find themselves without access to clean water.

Often they have to walk long distances to find drinking water.

Others resort to rudimentary filtration systems, such as the use of three or four plastic or earthen jars to make the water non-toxic.

However, this is a time-consuming process which most families cannot even afford.

Besides Bangladesh, other countries plagued by arsenic contamination include Vietnam, China, Argentina, as well as central France, southwest England and California.

swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez in Bangladesh (translation: Samantha Tonkin)

Key facts

Thanks to aid efforts, 97 per cent of Bangladeshis have access to wells.
However, 90 per cent of these are contaminated with arsenic.
The number of victims is hard to estimate, as the poison causes a slow death.

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