Reducing Arsenic Exposure from Well Water in South Asia: Lessons Learned
Abstract: Widespread groundwater contamination with arsenic of natural original was recognized in the Indian state of West Bengal 30 years ago and in neighboring Bangladesh two decades later. Over 50 million villagers remain exposed today. Over the same period, irrefutable evidence of the severe health impacts and economic costs of arsenic exposure has accumulated. The first reason for continued exposure is that shallow wells continue to be installed by individual households, either as additional wells or to replace failed wells. Rural households have nowhere to turn if they install a new well and want to have it tested. The second reason is that a particularly effective form of mitigation, the allocation of several hundred thousand deep community wells, which are typically low in arsenic, has been far from optimal. This presentation builds on these observations to propose a low-cost approach that relies on field kits for testing, smartphone for uploading data, and smartphones again for disseminating test results and optimizing the siting of new public sources. Input will be sought concerning field experiments that could help refine this approach in time for the rollout of the Bangladesh government’s recently announced US$250M arsenic mitigation program.
Biography: Lex van Geen is a geochemist by training and joined Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in 1994, after completing his PhD (1989) from the MIT/WHO Joint Program in Oceanography and post-doctoral fellowships in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University and the Water Resources Division of the US Geological Survey. His research interests span the reconstruction of past climate change from ocean sediment cores to the health effects on children of exposure to lead from mine tailings in Peru. Since 2000, he coordinates earth-science and mitigation efforts under Columbia’s Superfund Research Program on the health effects and geochemistry of arsenic contained in US and Bangladesh groundwater. Van Geen has initiated complementary studies of responses to arsenic mitigation in Bangladesh and the contamination of groundwater with microbial pathogens. He is a firm believer in the more widespread use of field kits by non-specialists to reduce exposure to environmental toxicants, particularly in developing countries. He holds a Lamont Research Professor appointment, is a member of the faculty of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and has published over 150 peer-reviewed.