Scientists develop cost effective strategy to address safe drinking water in Bangladesh

    Recommendations could improve the health of millions

    TORONTO, Oct. 7 /CNW/ - The drinking water of Bangladesh, known to be
contaminated with toxic agents can be addressed, according to an international
team of volunteer researchers, led by a scientist at The Hospital for Sick
Children (SickKids). Following years of study of the contaminants in the
water, the team has developed a practical strategy to ensure its safety. Their
findings are published online ahead of print in the journal Environmental
Health Perspectives.
    Over the three-year study, eleven scientists from four countries led by
Dr. Bibudhendra (Amu) Sarkar, Senior Scientist Emeritus in the Molecular
Structure & Function program at SickKids, and professor in biochemistry at the
University of Toronto, collected groundwater samples from 67 tubewells in
western Bangladesh - the worst affected area where this work was carried out
-which were then sent to Dubai, France and the U.S. to undergo testing for
every toxic element found above World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.
Bangladesh's 150 million people rely on these wells, as the previous practice
of drinking surface water was deemed unsafe due to high incidences of
water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid.
    Of the tubewells tested, 96 per cent exceeded WHO guidelines for at least
one of the following: arsenic, manganese, uranium, lead, nickel, chromium,
boron and barium. While arsenic remains the single greatest risk to public
health, the current practice of testing every tubewell for arsenic alone is
ineffective, since it misses many other toxins. Of the 67 per cent of
tubewells with safe levels of arsenic, 87 per cent had unsafe levels of
manganese and 64 per cent had unsafe levels of uranium.
    "While not all of the tubewells showed dangerous concentrations of
arsenic, over 60 million people are drinking unsafe water," explains Dr.
Sarkar, the research team leader. "Public education has raised awareness of
the link between arsenic poisoning and many types of cancer, but the dangers
of chronic ingestion of manganese, which is associated with neurological
damage, including parkinsonian disorders, and chronic uranium ingestion,
linked to kidney and bone damage, remain unclear. As life expectancy continues
to rise in Bangladesh, the prevalence of chronic disorders is likely to grow."
    Home-scale drinking water treatment systems are on the market, but most
have only been designed to remove arsenic. They also pose a problem if the
arsenic laden sludge created as a by-product is disposed of unsafely and
re-enters the ecosystem. Until a long-term sustainable solution can be found,
the research team proposes a three-step testing strategy which includes
systematic, graduated testing of the tubewells. This proposed testing program
is economical because it prioritizes the analysis of toxic elements, in order
of highest levels of concentration found, and stops the testing once a sample
is found to be unsafe for use as drinking water. An earlier societal study by
this team showed that 90 per cent of western Bangladeshis are willing to share
safe tubewell water with their less fortunate neighbors.
    The team hopes its findings will prompt similar studies in the densely
populated state of West Bengal in India, which borders western Bangladesh, and
where aquifers with similar characteristics are found and issues of toxicity
may be similar. Other plans include continued monitoring of Bangladesh's
drinking water and a study of its health effects on the paediatric population.
    This was the third related study conducted by this team of "scientists
without borders" who unite to volunteer their time and knowledge to affect
positive change in the lives of the less privileged around the world. The
current study was supported by Better Life Laboratories, Norwich University,
the Bangladesh Association for Needy Peoples Improvement, CNRS at the
Université de Bordeaux 1, and SickKids Foundation.

    The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), affiliated with the University
of Toronto, is Canada's most research-intensive hospital and the largest
centre dedicated to improving children's health. As innovators, SickKids
improves the health of children by integrating care, research and teaching.
Our mission both nationally and internationally is to provide the best in
complex and specialized care by creating scientific and clinical advancements,
sharing our knowledge and expertise and championing the development of an
accessible, comprehensive and sustainable child health system. For more
information, please visit SickKids is committed to healthier
children for a better world.

For further information:

For further information: Janice Nicholson, The Hospital for Sick
Children, (416) 813-6684,

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