Climate breakdown and arsenic in Bangladesh increase cancer risks

A new study warns that climate breakdown in Bangladesh poses an imminent threat, as rising sea levels and extreme weather events are set to escalate health risks, exposing millions to heightened cancer dangers from arsenic-contaminated well water.

A new study warns that climate breakdown will significantly escalate health risks in Bangladesh, exposing tens of millions of people to heightened cancer risks due to contaminated well water. The research suggests that the consequences of rising sea levels, unpredictable flooding, and extreme weather events linked to climate change will accelerate the release of dangerous levels of arsenic into the country’s drinking water.

The lead researcher, Dr. Seth Frisbie, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Norwich University, presented the findings, indicating that these environmental changes will intensify an existing public health crisis in Bangladesh. Arsenic poisoning, primarily through drinking water, has plagued the country since the 1990s, leading to skin, bladder, and lung cancers among the affected population.

The origins of Bangladesh’s arsenic water contamination crisis can be traced back to the 1970s when polluted surface water resulted in high infant mortality rates. In response, a massive program of deep tube well boring was initiated to provide clean water, reducing child deaths but inadvertently leading to the discovery of naturally occurring arsenic in well water.

Chronic arsenic poisoning occurs when arsenic accumulates within the bodies of those affected. External manifestations include keratinization of skin on the palms and soles of the feet, while internal deposits gather in the lungs and other organs, causing cancers.

Approximately 49% of areas in Bangladesh contain drinking water with arsenic levels exceeding the World Health Organization (WHO) limit of 10 parts per billion. Nearly 45% of areas contain water with at least five times that amount of arsenic. Dr. Frisbie estimates that around 78 million Bangladeshis are currently exposed, with an anticipated 900,000 deaths from lung and bladder cancer.

Climate breakdown exacerbates this critical issue. As sea levels rise, Bangladesh, situated on a massive river delta, is expected to face disproportionate flooding, altering the chemistry of the underlying aquifer. This process, known as “reduction,” leaches even more arsenic from sediment. Concurrently, rising sea levels result in seawater ingress into the aquifer, increasing its salinity and further releasing arsenic through a process known as “the salt effect.”

The researchers argue that these changes in aquifer chemistry will not only impact Bangladesh but also have global repercussions. Dr. Frisbie emphasizes that reduction of arsenic and changes in aquifer chemistry are universal chemical processes, turning this into a global problem. Urgent action is needed to address the complex interplay of climate change and water contamination, ensuring the health and well-being of vulnerable populations.