Climate breakdown poses a severe threat to public health in Bangladesh, particularly in relation to the contamination of well water, which could heighten the risk of cancer for tens of millions of people, according to recent research. Scientists assert that the rising sea levels, unpredictable flooding, and extreme weather events induced by climate change will expedite the release of hazardous levels of arsenic into the country’s drinking water.
The lead researcher, Dr. Seth Frisbie, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Norwich University, emphasized the urgency of the issue, stating that chronic arsenic poisoning from drinking water is not a theoretical exercise but a tangible and pressing problem. He shared the grim reality of encountering a village where no one was over 30 years old due to arsenic poisoning.
The origins of Bangladesh’s arsenic water contamination crisis trace back to the 1970s when the country faced high rates of infant mortality due to polluted surface water. In response, UN aid agencies and NGOs initiated a large-scale program of deep tube well drilling to provide clean water, leading to a significant reduction in child deaths. However, by the 1990s, it became apparent that the water drawn from sedimentary rocks beneath Bangladesh contained elevated levels of naturally occurring arsenic.
Arsenic, naturally present and washed down from the Himalayan uplift, was not problematic when people consumed surface water. However, the introduction of deep well water, less in communication with atmospheric oxygen, became a major public health crisis. Chronic arsenic poisoning, characterized by a buildup of arsenic in the body, leads to external manifestations such as skin keratinization and internal deposits, contributing to cancers.
Frisbie’s research reveals that approximately 78 million Bangladeshis are currently exposed to elevated arsenic levels, and a conservative estimate suggests that around 900,000 Bangladeshis could succumb to lung and bladder cancer due to chronic arsenic poisoning. Climate breakdown exacerbates this problem, as rising sea levels disproportionately affect Bangladesh, altering the aquifer’s chemistry and releasing more arsenic through reduction and increasing salinity.
The implications extend beyond Bangladesh, as these chemical processes are global. Changes in aquifer chemistry due to climate breakdown could lead to increased arsenic release in various regions worldwide. The study, published in the journal Plos One, underscores the urgency of addressing this global problem and implementing measures to mitigate the impact of climate change on water quality and public health.