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Urgent actions needed to address arsenic threats in Bangladesh

DHAKA, 22 March 2010 - Urgent action is needed to address arsenic contamination of water and food in order to mitigate its impact on the health of millions of Bangladeshi people, according to a document released today by the Government of Bangladesh and the United Nations.
The publication titled Towards an Arsenic Safe Environment in Bangladesh was officially launched in Dhaka on the occasion of World Water Day by Begum Matia Chowdhury, Minister of Agriculture, Syed Ashraful Islam, Minister of Local Government and Rural Development & Co-operatives, and Dr. A.F.M Ruhul Haque, Minister of Health and Family Welfare, and the UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh, Renata Lok Dessallien.
According to the presentation made by Dr A. Atiq Rahman, a leading author of the publication and renowned environmentalist, arsenic contamination poses major challenges to achieve the goal of safe water for all by 2011. A recent survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and UNICEF reveals that 12.6 per cent of households equivalent to about 20 million people still drink water containing arsenic above the Government standard of 50 micrograms per liter.
In addition scientists have identified emerging threats in the health and agriculture sectors. There is now more evidence of the health impact of arsenic, which can significantly increase mortality from various cancers, heart attacks and cardio-pulmonary diseases. It is also recognised that arsenic can impair the intellectual function of children. Research also suggests that rice irrigated with arsenic contaminated water can contribute substantially to the daily intake of arsenic in Bangladesh because it is the main staple food.
‘As we celebrate the World Water Day with the theme of ‘Clean Water for a Healthy World’, it is time to take stock of progress made so far and devise a new plan in order to provide arsenic safe water to the 20 million people still at risk’, said Syed Asharful Islam, Minister of Local Government and Rural Development and Co-operatives. ‘A sector development plan is already being devised, taking into account the latest situation assessment.’
In addition to water, recent data from south-western districts of Bangladesh indicate that rice also contains arsenic due to water irrigation. The average daily intake of arsenic from rice for a Bangladeshi adult is estimated at approximately 100 micrograms arsenic while the WHO Potential Maximum Tolerable Daily Intake (PMDTI) for a 65 kg adult is 140 micrograms. Arsenic may enter the food chain through rice straw used to feed cattle. Food security is also at risk as accumulation of arsenic in the soil through the use of groundwater irrigation may reduce crops yields.
‘The Ministry of Agriculture has taken steps to ensure the proper management of surface water including rainwater conservation’, said Begum Matia Chowdhury, Minister of Agriculture. ‘We will have to augment the use of surface water and simultaneously limit the use of both surface and groundwater to reduce accumulation of arsenic in crops and food sources.’
According to the publication, arsenic poses health risks to a significant proportion of the population. Children are particularly vulnerable to arsenic poisoning. The well-know skin lesions caused by arsenic are only the tip of the iceberg of many health consequences, including cancers, lung and heart diseases.
‘Raising awareness among people on the danger of arsenic is essential’, said Dr. A.F.M Ruhul Haque, Minister of Health and Family Welfare. ‘Health workers can disseminate arsenic-related core messages, while the Government will continue to invest in screening and treatment of arsenicosis patients in affected districts.’

Towards an Arsenic Safe Environment in Bangladesh includes clear recommendations for mitigating the impact of arsenic in the three sectors of water, health and agriculture, providing a road map for the Government and development partners. Robust arsenic monitoring and screening system are necessary in all sectors while overall coordination is essential to ensure that mitigation in one sector does not negatively affect efforts made in other sectors.

‘Urgent action is needed to re-focus the attention of the nation towards an arsenic safe environment’, said Renata Lok Dessallien, UN Resident Coordinator in her speech. ‘Concerted efforts by the Government and all stakeholders are necessary to reinvigorate arsenic monitoring and mitigation efforts and conduct comprehensive research on emerging threats.’

Three UN Agencies, FAO, UNICEF, WHO and the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank have been providing continuous support to the Government in addressing the unprecedented challenge of arsenic contamination. This has included several large-scale initiatives to provide access to alternative safe drinking-water supplies; research into the health impacts, patient management, and arsenic presence in the food chain; capacity building through training of health sector and water supply sector staff, and strengthening of institutional capacity.

For more information contact:
FAO: Mr Shahidul Islam, National Consultant,
Tel: 8119422 / 01732608833,
E-mail: s.islam_dae@yahoo.com

UNICEF: Christine Jaulmes, Chief, Communication and Information,
Tel: (+88)02 9336701-10 Ext 209,
Email: cjaulmes@unicef.org

WHO: Mr. Mahfuzur Rahman, Public Information consultant;
Tel: 01714165212;
E-mail: rahmanm4@searo.who.int

WSP (World Bank): Mehrin Ahmed Mahbub, Communications Associate,
Tel: 880-2-8159001-28 ext. 4251,
E-mail: mmahbub@worldbank.org




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