There are more than 30 million people in Bangladesh at risk from arsenic contaminated water, which can cause health problems including thickening and hardening of the hands and feet, skin cancer, bladder cancer, lung cancer, vascular disease leading to gangrene, and diabetes. Columbia University scientists from the Mailman School of Public Health and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have been studying the source and health impacts of elevated arsenic in groundwater of Bangladesh for the past 10 years.
Christine Marie George, a PhD student at the Mailman School of Public Health, launched an experiment designed with her advisors Lex van Geen and Joseph Graziano, who are working on an arsenic project on groundwater of the Bengal basin —research that will also have a home in the new Columbia Global Center/South Asia. Christine’s project, which was selected for funding by the Earth Clinic (whose work is supported by donors Joe and Barbara Ellis and the Countess Moira Charitable Foundation), focuses on the very practical issue of boosting the effectiveness of mitigation to lower arsenic exposure and both improve and save lives.
One-third of the wells in Bangladesh installed since the last country-wide blanket survey of 5 million wells ended in 2005 are currently untested for arsenic contamination. Christine’s project seeks to test the hypothesis that, depending on equal provision of financial resources, training local village health workers to routinely perform arsenic testing is more effective in reducing exposure, as they can be sent to test more frequently than outside testers. Additionally, local workers encourage villagers to switch to low arsenic wells rather than keeping their current, high-arsenic wells.
Baselines surveys were completed in 20 villages earlier this year and 10 local testers and 10 outside testers are currently being trained to test wells for arsenic. Power calculations based on past experience indicate that, by the end of August 2010, Christine should be able to determine if her hypothesis is correct on the basis of post-intervention surveys conducted by the team of field workers that she recruited with support from the Earth Clinic.