News Archive

posted 11/09/01

Columbia Sponsors Conference On Arsenic In Drinking Water
November 26-27 Conference to Highlight Arsenic Science and Solutions

By Jennifer Freeman

On November 26-27, 2001, Columbia University will host "Arsenic in Drinking Water: An International Conference, "co-sponsored by Columbia’s Superfund Basic Research Program and the Columbia Earth Institute. The two-day conference will take place in Lerner Hall, Fifth Floor, on Monday and Tuesday, from 8:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m. The conference is free and open to the public.

On October 31, under pressure from Congress and opposition from health researchers and other scientists, the Bush Administration reversed its position and lowered allowable levels of arsenic in U.S. drinking water.

Arsenic in drinking water is both a domestic and an international issue. In the U.S., water utilities in New Mexico, California and elsewhere will have to take steps to reduce arsenic levels in the water they provide to meet the new Environmental Protection Agency standards of 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L), down from the previously permitted level of 50 µg/L.

In Bangladesh, 35 to 85 million people are currently exposed to poisonous levels of arsenic present in well water supplied by millions of hand pumps. The situation in Bangladesh is hindered by a serious absence of interaction between donor agencies (e.g., World Bank, UNICEF, USAID) and the international community of scientists currently working on arsenic-related issues. A major objective of the Columbia conference is to bridge these gaps and to increase the attention of the international community on the ongoing tragedy in Bangladesh.

Columbia has been central to a five year, $11 million grant with seven interdisciplinary research projects aimed at understanding and addressing the multiple facets of the arsenic problem. New research by Columbia scientists Doherty Senior Research Scientist Alexander van Geen and Professor Joseph Graziano, head of the Division of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, has shown that although half the 55,000 people living within their study area in Bangladesh currently drink and cook with water containing unsafe arsenic levels, over 90 percent of the population lives within 200 meters of one of the safe wells interspersed throughout the region.

By implication, millions of people in Bangladesh could avoid arsenic poisoning by switching to their neighbors’ wells, if social obstacles, private property boundaries, and other problems could be surmounted.

The two-day conference will include a review of the current science, technologies and policies. Participants will address problems and potential solutions from public health, social science and natural science perspectives. Conference presenters will discuss how studying arsenic in Bangladesh can give US scientists greater insight not only on the geochemistry and hydrological aspects of arsenic contamination in drinking water, but also on the potential health effects for vulnerable U.S. populations.

Solutions to the problems created by arsenic in drinking water in the U.S. and Bangladesh must include human as well as physical factors. At the upcoming conference, experts from public health, the social sciences, and the geosciences will be present and encouraged to exchange ideas.

Columbia has taken a unique, interdisciplinary approach to the problem drawing upon the Earth Institute’s large network of scientists from the Mailman School of Public Health, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Henry Krumb School of Mines, the Center for Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), the School of International and Public Affairs and other related departments. "Our interdisciplinary approach is part of why the Superfund seminars and conferences are always so enlightening," says Meredith Golden of CIESIN.

"Arsenic in Drinking Water" is sponsored by Columbia’s Superfund Basic Research Program, which is administered by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Additional support is provided by the Columbia Earth Institute. Thanks to these contributions the conference is free and open to the public. However, seating is limited and pre-registration prior to November 15th is recommended.

For more details or to register, go to

For questions regarding the conference, contact Ann Hutzelman (; 212-305-3466) at the Division of Environmental Health Sciences

Inquiries related to the Web site and online registration should be addressed to Meredith Golden (

Since its inception in 1996, the Columbia Earth Institute has been a leader in understanding Earth to enhance sustainability through Earth systems science teaching, research and the application of Earth and social science to benefit society. For more information, visit


About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center 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 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. For more information, visit