The largest poisoning of a population in history is the contamination of groundwater by arsenic in Bangladesh, exposing millions of people. This paper describes the history of the discovery of arsenic in drinking-water in Bangladesh and recommends intervention strategies.
- Studies in other similar countries indicate that 1 in 10 people who drink water containing 500 micrograms of arsenic per liter may ultimately die from cancers caused by arsenic, including lung, bladder and skin cancers.
- The recently rapid allocation of funding and expansion of current interventions to address this contamination should be facilitated.
- The fundamental intervention is the identification and provision of arsenic-free drinking water.
- Community education and participation are essential to ensure that interventions are successful; these should be coupled with follow-up monitoring to confirm that exposure has ended.
- Contamination of drinking-water with arsenic illustrates the difficulties of community based interventions. Most importantly, the arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh has indicated that delaying action in an attempt to be thorough in research and long-term planning can be a mistake. Long-term solutions will likely have to be tailored to local environments, and it is counterproductive to defer immediate action until the long-term alternatives are completely designed.
- Together with the discovery of arsenic in groundwater in other countries, the experience in Bangladesh shows that groundwater sources throughout the world that are used for drinking-water should be tested for arsenic.