Researcher’s work may prevent arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh © March 16, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications

Pumping water at a Bangladesh well.

photo by Seth H. Frisbie Pumping water at a Bangladesh well.

It is, without a doubt, the largest mass poisoning in history.

More than 150,000 people living in the developing nation of Bangladesh are expected to die from skin, bladder, liver, and lung cancers because of exposure to naturally occurring arsenic. Now, a testing method developed by Seth H. Frisbie, faculty member in Norwich University’s chemistry department, is offering hope for hundreds of thousands of people by making it easier to identify safer sources of groundwater in the southwest Asian country of 137 million.

“The youngest recorded cancer death in Bangladesh is that of a seven year old,” Frisbie said. “I’ve been in villages where no one is over 30.”

He quickly adds, “It changes your life.”

Working with an international team of scientists, and with the help of several Norwich students (including his wife, sociologist Erika J. Mitchell), Frisbie developed a new laboratory method that detects arsenic at 10 parts per billion, the standard set by the World Health Organization as safe. More than 28 million people in the developing nation are drinking water that contains at least five times as much arsenic as the WHO standard.

In Bangladesh, having your own well is a status symbol. It’s as significant to the average citizen as owning a new car or house is in the United States.

~ Seth H. Frisbie

The source of the arsenic and other toxic metals found in groundwater in Bangladesh is the Himalaya mountains. The same geological processes that created the world’s highest mountain range also pushed these metals closer to the earth’s surface. The metals are part of the sediment washed down by snowmelt into the rivers that crisscross the small, densely populated country. From there, it seeps below ground into places where Bangladeshi may dig water wells.

A tragic irony is that Bangladesh initially began using groundwater to solve a health problem, Mitchell said.  Most people used to draw their drinking water from surface water sources, which can harbor a plethora of water-borne bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases. Since 1971, millions of wells have been dug in the country to help prevent these problems. Changing water sources is one reason that the average life expectancy in Bangladesh increased from around 46 years in the mid-1960s to about 59 years today.

“In Bangladesh, having your own well is a status symbol,” Frisbie said. “It’s as significant to the average citizen as owning a new car or house is in the United States.”

Working through Better Life Laboratories Inc., the non-profit organization the couple founded in 1997, Frisbie and Mitchell observed a direct correlation between the age of a well and the number of the people showing symptoms of arsenic poisoning.

“The longer a person is exposed, even at low levels, the more likely they are to develop symptoms,” Mitchell said.

Although there are filtration systems to remove toxins installed in many areas of Bangladesh, it is much cheaper to identify wells that are safe and those that are not, Frisbie said. One reason he and his colleagues are optimistic for the success of the testing method Frisbie developed is that it uses water as a solvent, instead of chloroform, which poses disposal problems because of its toxicity.

Frisbie and Mitchell are co-writing a report on their latest findings for Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institutes of Health and read by scientists across the world. They have also been invited to present their findings at the fourth annual International Conference on Metals and Genetics at the University of Paris this summer.

“In medicine, there is the concept of ‘from the lab to the bedside,’” Frisbie said. “Our work is highly successful because we’re able to use science and directly help people.”