News Archive

posted 07/18/03

Deep Wells Can Target Low Arsenic Aquifers in Bangladesh, New Study Shows
Columbia researchers advance plan to mitigate arsenic crisis

A new study by Columbia University researchers shows highly variable arsenic levels in water drawn from wells in the 10-25 m depth range, while wells deeper than 30 m in this particular village are consistently low in arsenic. The upper panel based on an IKONOS satellite image of the village and surrounding rice fields shows the location and arsenic content of individual wells. The lower panel is a depth section of the same wells. The large blue circle indicates the location and depth of a communal well installed and monitored by the program. Satellite image by: spaceimaging.com

A solution to arsenic-poisoned drinking water in Bangladesh has come two steps closer with two new research papers by Lex van Geen, Doherty Senior Researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and a team of researchers from Columbia.

The first paper, titled "Spatial variability of arsenic in 6000 tube wells in a 25km2 area of Bangladesh," was published in a recent issue of the highly-ranked journal Water Resources Research and was selected by the American Geological Union for highlighting in July. The paper describes a study that involved testing all tube wells in a portion of Araihazar upazila, one of 490 sub-districts of Bangladesh. The study confirms that although the arsenic content of aquifers shallower than 30 meters is spatially very variable and difficult to predict, wells that tap into deeper sandy deposits that are over 10,000 years old yield groundwater that is consistently low in arsenic ( Less than 10 micrograms of arsenic per liter, the WHO guideline value).

A complication is that the depth of these safe aquifers varies from less than 10 meters to up to 300 meters, even varying over an unexpectedly wide range from village to village as this new study shows. The challenge, therefore, is to provide the expertise and equipment needed to target these aquifers at the village scale. Click HERE to download the paper in PDF format.

Further research by the team, in a study published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, shows that when communal wells producing safe drinking water are provided to a village, they are surprisingly well accepted and widely used by the local population, serving an average of 500 people living within a 200 meter radius. On the basis of geographic information obtained with hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, the study documents that most women started to walk hundreds of meters each day to fetch water from these communal wells once they were installed, switching from their private wells that had tested high for arsenic.

Local-level mapping of arsenic content in groundwater, used as a tool to site deep, safe community wells in Bangladesh, could therefore be used extensively to reduce the exposure of the population to arsenic. "On the basis of these two studies and the experiences of many other scientists and engineers," Van Geen explains, "we are beginning to form a new strategy to propose to the government of Bangladesh to mitigate the arsenic crisis."

Columbia University has been central to a five year, $11 million grant from the NIEHS Superfund Basic Research Program aimed at understanding and addressing the health impact and origin of elevated arsenic levels in groundwater in the US and in Bangladesh. The Columbia team, led by Joe Graziano of the Mailman School of Public Health and Lex van Geen, is approaching the problem from a unique, multidisciplinary perspective that spans the health, social, and earth sciences. The Columbia team also collaborates with NGOs active in Bangladesh, universities and research organizations in Bangladesh and the US, as well as with UNICEF.

The Earth Institute at Columbia is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor.

Related Links

EI News Release - 04/14/03
Bollinger, Sachs, Rosenfield Visit Bangladesh Prime Minister

EI News Release - 09/06/02
Columbia University Scientists Propose Well-Switching as Key to Mitigating Bangladesh Arsenic Poisoning Tragedy

EI News Release - 11/09/01
Columbia Sponsors Conference On Arsenic In Drinking Water

EI News Release - 10/31/01
Van Geen Wins NSF Grant for Arsenic Testing Device

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.