Arsenic-laced water may cause more young deaths

Chronic exposure to higher arsenic concentration through drinking water has shown to cause more deaths in young adults from a number of different diseases other than cancer, suggests new icddr,b findings.

The different diseases include cardio-vascular disease (related to the heart), cerebro-vascular disease (related to the brain) and respiratory disease (related to the lungs), that can be consequences of the toxic effects of arsenic.

Up to 40 million people in Bangladesh may be exposed to groundwater arsenic. Photo: GMB Akash / icddr,b

Long-term health effects such as skin lesions, diabetes and developmental defects are well-known consequences of arsenic poisoning, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Individuals with chronic exposure to arsenic are at higher risk of death at younger age because arsenic is such a toxic agent that affects all systems of human body,” says Dr Muhammad Yunus, emeritus scientist and senior author of the study published in Environment International based on a 13-year long observation on indications of higher mortality risk rate of young adults.

In the recent icddr,b study, around 60,000 individuals’ health-related information including arsenic exposure levels were closely observed and recorded for over a decade in icddr,b’s Matlab Health and Demographic Surveillance (HDSS). Young adults who passed away due to cancers, cerebro-vascular, cardio-vascular and respiratory diseases – were found to have a higher exposure to arsenic-laced water.

World Water Day this year argues in favour of leaving no one behind while ensuring ‘water for all’ – which is a fundamental human right. Sustainable Development Goal 6 aims to ensure water for everyone by the year 2030 since billions across the globe still struggle to survive and thrive without safe water.

Water issues affect continents like Africa more than South Asia. However, up to 40 million people in Bangladesh may still be exposed to arsenic through drinking water or food despite drinking water availability from shallow and deep tubewells. Arsenic exposure as a key public health concern also affects around 140 million people worldwide, according to WHO.

Individuals in the icddr,b study were found 5 times more likely to die from different diseases at an early age when exposed to average arsenic levels at around 223.1 ug per litre water or cumulative arsenic level at >2711 ug per year per litre, suggests the study.

Adverse effects of arsenic from food and water is linked with higher death rates for all age groups, including infants, according to findings published in The Kaohsiung Journal of Medical Sciences.

Dr Yunus observes that similar long-observational studies conducted in other parts of the world, such as a 50-year long study in Latin America, suggest that even though arsenic exposure receded for some 15 years, higher rates of adult deaths due to lung and urinary bladder cancer continued for the next 25 years, as per findings in Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

icddr,b researchers have already shown the ill-effects of arsenic exposure on child health, which even causes damage to the immune system at the genetic level, so much so that immune defence of children aged under 10 may become as weak as an aged person.

The recent findings on increasing rates of young adult deaths might just be the consequences of an overall ailing health due to arsenic.

“It is a total public health disaster. Concerted efforts from all concerns to cut down arsenic exposure must pick up momentum. This important and lingering public health issue often goes off the radar, whereas all the evidence shows that it continues to cause fatalities,” adds Dr Yunus.

Muhamamd Zahir Hassan Nabil