'Homegrown' relief for victims of arsenic poisoning in South Asia

The World Health Organization calls it the "largest mass poisoning of a population in history."

Halfway around the globe, in a region that is no stranger to misery, 100 million people in eastern India and Bangladesh suffer from skin ulcers, tumors and other debilitating and even fatal consequences of arsenic poisoning.

The crisis, says Arup SenGupta, who grew up in the Indian state of West Bengal, is "the biggest natural calamity of our time." Like many environmental problems in developing countries, he says, it cries out for a homegrown solution.

SenGupta, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Lehigh University, says he has developed such a solution in the form of an inexpensive, simple well-head unit that removes arsenic from water wells.

Since 1997, his system has been installed in more than 100 village drinking wells near the cities of Howrah and Calcutta in West Bengal.

Arsenic levels in the filtered wells have plummeted from toxic rates of 100 to 500 parts per billion, SenGupta says, to well below the 50-ppb maximum permitted by the Indian government. Arsenicosis sufferers have found relief from their symptoms, and reports of new cases have plummeted.

SenGupta will visit West Bengal for a week beginning Dec. 22, and will tour several villages where his system has been installed.

Each of SenGupta's systems is built in India and installed by students and professors from Bengal Engineering College in Howrah for a cost of $1,200 to $1,500. The units last about 15 years, although the arsenic-removing materials must be regenerated once or twice a year, and the arsenic requires safe disposal.

Funds for the projected have been provided by Water For People and other non-profit groups and private foundations.

The systems, which are operated with a hand pump and need no electric power or chemicals, are maintained by villagers with help from Bengal Engineering College. Villagers are also

Contact: Kurt Pfitzer
Lehigh University

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