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Dhaka Tribune

HRW: Arsenic kills 1 every 12 minutes

Update : 02 Mar 2017, 12:47 AM
A damning report begins with a farmer in his mid-30s sweating from exertion after working the fields.
The rural farmer, father to three children, and son to dead arsenic victims, could well become another damning statistic. He is already showing signs of lesions on his chest just like ones his parents had on their hands and feet. According to a Human Rights Watch report, arsenic-related diseases claim one person every 12 minutes throughout the year. Titled “Nepotism and Neglect”, the New York-based activist organisation stated in its report that Bangladesh had done precious little in the 20 years that arsenic was detected as a problem. As a result, the report focusing on the failure to respond to the arsenic problem said it had not affected 20 million people. The HRW report cites reports that say, of the 90 million children born between 2000 and 2030, up to five million are set to die from arsenic poisoning. Of course, the numbers could decrease depending on government initiative to mitigate the problem. The head of the health services directorate, Prof Dr Deen Muhammad Nurul Haque, said the government has strong campaigns in place to counter the effects of arsenic. “The government also provides treatment for those who have been affected.” But HRW researcher Richard Pearshouse said: “Arsenic contamination has been found from at least 5,000 government deep tube wells of the 125,000 deep tube wells. However, the contamination rate was also noted to be higher than the national standard.” He said the team found in many places that some people had taken control of deep tube wells set up by the government for public use. Pearshouse explained that those tube wells being used for personal benefit, in turn deprived hundreds of safe and arsenic-free water. The report touches upon three research findings that jointly point towards the high number of deaths due to arsenic poisoning. One found among a sample of 115,000 people, arsenic exposure above 10 micrograms per litre in drinking water accounted for considerable excess mortality among adults in rural Bangladesh. Another study analysed mortality over a decade among 11,000 people and found 21% of all deaths were due to arsenic exposure above 10 micrograms per litre. Other researchers applied the risk of deaths from arsenic exposure identified in these two studies, as well as exposure findings from 2009, to estimate the annual death toll of 43,000 people from arsenic-related illnesses in Bangladesh each year, as published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. HRW’s Pearshouse interviewed 134 people in five villages across the country. “Of which, 50 were people suffering from arsenic-related health problems. None of those 50 have died, as far as I know, but many of them had family members who had died”, he told the Dhaka Tribune. The government identifies people with arsenic-related illnesses primarily via skin lesions, although the vast majority of those with arsenic-related illnesses do not develop them, the report reads; adding that those exposed are at significant risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and lung disease as a result, but many receive no health care at all. The HRW report said the government identifies arsenic patients by a particular set of dermatological symptoms. The Bangladesh government does not attempt to measure these deaths or serious illnesses caused by arsenic. But DGHS chief Dr Deen told reporters at the Health Ministry yesterday that the HRW data was incorrect. The government had no idea about the HRW’s work or what process they had used to reach the findings. “There are no such data regarding the death caused by arsenic in the observation of the health department,” he said. “We have healthcare programmes across the country. In the arsenic contaminated areas, there have been campaigns to motivate people for using surface water. “The government also provides treatment to those affected by arsenic,” Dr Deen added. Interestingly, the HRW said in its report that it had written to the government asking the reason for its approach, but no reply had been received at time of publication.
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