Bad Luck Never Stops Here


Biggest Mass Poisoning in History?

We already have the statistics for the future: the growth percentages of pollution, overpopulation, desertification.  The future is already in place.

- Gunther Grass

Arsenic Poisoning Threatens Millions

Arsenic-Laced Well Water Poisoning Bangladeshis

by Pallava Bagla

Possibly the largest mass poisoning in history may be underway in India and Bangladesh.  Pollution is not to blame.  The culprit is arsenic in the drinking water, a natural phenomenon in several parts of the world, but which is particularly severe in South Asia.  Arsenic in ground water is caused naturally mainly by minerals dissolving from weathered rocks and soils.  Exposure to high levels of the toxic element can cause cancers of the skin, bladder, kidney, and lung, and diseases of the blood vessels of the legs and feet, as well as possibly diabetes, high blood pressure, and reproductive disorders.

How many Indians and Bangladeshis are exposed to a high level of arsenic in their drinking water?  According to the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, estimates vary from a low of 28 to 35 million to a high of 77 million - more than half the population of Bangladesh, one of the most crowded nations.  It is estimated that over a million Indians are also drinking arsenic-laced water.  Newer cases of arsenic poisoning in the Ganges Basin suggest that many of the region's 449 million residents could be at risk.

Dipankar Chakraborti, a researcher at the Jadavpur University in Kolkatta, India believes that more than 50 million people are exposed and thousands are already showing symptoms of poisoning.  Bangladeshis are being poisoned - usually without knowing it - by drinking water drawn from wells.  Three decades ago health and development experts, and small local contractors, dug millions of deep tube wells throughout Bangladesh.  The experts encouraged the whole nation to drink well water because it was deemed to be safe, free of the bacteria that causes water-borne diseases such as diarrhea and other intestinal maladies that have long plagued the tropical country.  But in switching from rivers and other surface sources of water, the people of Bangladesh may have exchanged water-borne diseases for slow poisoning by arsenic.  In the 1970's public health specialists and government policy-makers were unaware of the problem.  It was only in 1993 that "clean" well water was discovered to contain dangerous quantities of the poison.

"It is a terrible public catastrophe," said Allan H Smith, professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a WHO consultant who has investigated the problem in Bangladesh on several trips.

The number of people affected by the arsenic disaster ranks with those being threatened by the biggest killer diseases.  "By virtue of its sheer size it is pushing the limits of our knowledge and capacity to respond to it," said Hans van Ginkel, rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo.  In a new effort to alleviate the crisis, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) is undertaking a project in which integrated geologic, hydrologic, and geochemical approaches will be used to develop criteria that will identify and map sources of safe or low-arsenic ground water.  This involves the digging of new deep bore wells which might help determine arsenic levels in both the Meghna and Ganges river basins.

Local people are being used to manually dig to the sort of depths that in the western world are normally accessible only with the assistance of sophisticated drilling rigs.  Davd W Clark, a specialist with USGS who is currently working in Bangladesh, says, "I have been amazed that the local folks are drilling wells up to 1,200 feet (366 meters) deep using no machinery of any kind.  It is a lot of hard work and the drillers are very skilled and do an excellent job."  But what really intrigues Clark is watching the drillers remove the 1,200 feet (36 meters) of drill stem from the well.  "The entire crew of 25 to 30 laborers would climb the derrick singing a local Bangla folk song in response to the leader - at a given point they would all jump off hanging onto a rope to try to extract the pipe - this would move the pipe a few feet," he said.  "The entire process takes many hours, but it gets done."

According to the USGS the purpose of drilling these deep wells is to get a better definition of the deep aquifer system and to see if - at least in some areas - it may provide a viable source of potable water, free of arsenic.

WHO's most recent guideline for the maximum amount of arsenic in drinking water recommends 10 parts per billion (ppb).  That was in 1993 when it was lowered to that level from 50 ppb.  But most water consumed in arsenic-affected areas in Bangladesh has substantially higher levels, frequently far above 50 ppb.  Arsenic-contaminated water is not restricted to developing countries.  In the western states of the United States of America about 13 million people drink arsenic-tainted water, albeit less contaminated than the well water in Bangladesh.  Australia, too, has arsenic-contaminated water.  So do Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Hungary, Mexico, Taiwan (Province of China), Thailand, Vietnam, and the eastern areas of India in Bengal.

Arsenic poisoning is recognisable from skin color changes, blotches all over the face and body, hyper pigmentation on the chest and upper arms, hard patches on palms and soles of the feet, inability to walk, deb ilitating pain, and watery eyes.

Source:  New Delhi 5 June 2003

Bangladesh's Arsenic Water Concern

Children collect water during flooding

"The testing kits are not capable of measuring the water sensitively," said Dr Dipankar Chakraborti, head of environmental studies at Jadavpur University in Calcutta.  "The problem is unreliability; you just don't know.  The tests are like a child sometimes - it might be in a good mood, sometimes in a bad mood."

Over a decade ago, scientists in Bangladesh discovered that drinking water drawn from wells was contaminated with arsenic.  To avoid people drinking polluted water, portable water testing kits were introduced, designed to monitor the countries 1.3 million wells.  However, according to Dr Chakraborti, some of the test kits being used are nowhere near sensitive enough to give a reliable answer.  Since 1996, he has tested 2,866 water samples from wells that were previously labelled as being safe by field workers.  "In some case we have found more than 50% arsenic, in some cases 80% and in others less than 20%, but the thing is that you don't know what will be the result."

More than 10,000 people are known to have arsenic-related diseases, but it is thought that many more cases go unreported.  Explaining the long-term health risks associated with high concentrations of arsenic, Dr Chakraborti warned: "If you drink for a prolonged time 50 microgrammes per litre of arsenic-contaminated water - out of 100 people, 1.2 people could get cancer."

Source: Friday 22 November 2002 photo credit: Associated Press

The Mysterious Carcinogen

Arsenic is in food as well as water, but researchers say a typical daily diet contains only 10 to 15 micrograms of inorganic arsenic - the compounds that are hazardous [food contains much more organic arsenic, but that form passes harmlessly through the body].

Although toxicologists aren't sure how arsenic attacks the body's cells, a new study by scientists at Dartmouth Medical School indicates that the substance disrupts the activity of hormones called glucocorticoids, which help to regulate blood sugar and suppress tumours.  Arsenic interferes with these processes by binding to the glucocorticoid receptors in cells and changing their structure.  The study suggests that arsenic, instead of causing cancer by itself, promotes the growth of tumours caused by other carcinogens.  Arsenic-induced effects appear at concentrations as low as two micrograms per litre.

Arsenic may be hazardous even in the minute quantities found in many wells and municipal water systems.  The amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water in the US is 50 micrograms per litre whereas the European Union and the World Health Organisation set the limit at 10 micrograms per litre.  (A 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that daily ingestion of water containing 50 micrograms of arsenic per litre would equal the risk of living with a cigarette smoker.)

Wells in southwestern Taiwan have high arsenic levels, as do places in Argentina and northern Chile.  In the US, most public water systems with high arsenic concentrations are in the western states (altogether there are 4,100 systems serving 13 million people in the US with concentrations which exceed the European standards).  Tailings from mines are often laced with arsenic, so tightening standards would vastly increase the cost of decontaminating abandoned mines.

Danger zones in the US include Norman and Moore, Oklahoma; Chino Hills, Lakewood and Lancaster, California; Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, New Mexico; Victoria and Midland, Texas; and Scottsdale, Arizona.  (Click the "Next" button at the bottom of the page for more on drinking water quality to be found on the following page in this section.)

Source: Scientific American June 2001 from information provided by the National Resources Defense Council

Source: Funny Times May 2001

There ARE other poisons...

Rising Salt Levels Destroy Australian Farmland

Sydney - Crop-killing salt is gobbling up arable land in Australia at such a rate it is forecast to devour an area bigger than Ireland n the next 50 years.  Areas potentially affected will grow to 17 million hectares (42 million acres) by 2050 from 5.7 million hectares now, a government-backed report by the Australian National Land and Water Resources Audit shows.  Of that, 13.7 million hectares is some of Australia's most fertile farmland.

About 250,000 hectares of land a year are being eaten alive by salt rising from the earth, corroding roads, railways and pipes, and killing crops and biological habitats.  Australia is the world's third biggest exporter of wheat and the single biggest exporter of wool.  It is these two crops that face the gravest risk.

Australia's bitter harvest is being reaped by European cropping practices, which have unlocked ancient salt stores.  Some salt has been released from weathering rocks, but most has been carried in from oceans in rain for thousands of years, the report says.  "Salt stores have developed because there is little capacity to drain the continent of salt and water," the report says.

European settlement replaced native vegetation with crops with shallower roots and different seasonal growth, affecting water use.  Rising water tables are bringing dissolved salts to the surface.  Decades, hundreds or even thousands of years may be needed for the problem to be fixed, the report says.

The 13.7 million hectares of farmland threatened by 2050 would be greater than the present total area devoted to wheat, Australia's biggest crop.  Last year, slightly more than 12 million hectares was used to grow a wheat crop of about 20 million tonnes.

The study, concluded this month, is the first full evaluation of dry land salinity in Australia.  "The key message is ... that we expect a three-fold change ... over the next 50 years.  The [salinity] processes are active, they're ongoing," Warwick MacDonald, technical director for the National Land and Water Resources Audit, said.

A spokeswoman for Australian Agriculture Minister Warren Truss said the government was committed to going ahead with a A$l.4 billion (NZ$1.7 billion) programme to combat salinity, despite a tight budget.  Management options include maintaining natural water balance processes, concentration on high water-use cropping and pasture ventures, together with revegetation with trees or agro-forestry.

The report shows that agricultural production from 4.6 million hectares of land is already potentially at risk.  Towns are also at risk because bitumen and concrete are vulnerable to salt.  Sixty-eight rural towns are already directly affected.  That will grow to 125 towns by 2020. - Reuters

Source: The Dominion Thursday 29 March 2001

Does It Matter How You Die, Or Only That You're Dead?

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: most dangerous book?
Date: Thu, 22 Apr 2004 16:40:36 -0500
From: Cody Hatch <>
To: Ruth Hatch <>


An argument you run into now and again, often among the terminally bored and/or drunk, is which book killed more - The Communist Manifesto, or Mein Kampf.  Like most such arguments, little data is available, and no hard answer is possible (or, based on my experience with such arguments and/or arguers, desirable).  In any case, the Manifesto is normally considered the winner, with total deaths directly attributable to Communism somewhere on the order of 100 million (over half in China, a quarter in Russia, the rest scattered across the rest of the globe in penny packets, mostly in Asia and Africa).  National Socialism doesn't really compare.

A funny thing though - a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation would indicate that the Manifesto is only in second place.  It's been beaten by a much more modern book - Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

300-500 million people catch malaria per year.  2 million die, many others are debilitated, some get brain damage - major GDP hit, which is directly correlated with additional deaths.  Call total societal effects 5 million per year (low estimate).  Silent Spring was published in 1963; 2004 - 1963 = 40, 40 x 5 million = 200 million deaths.

Of course, one might make an argument for the Bible or Koran, but that's just too difficult to calculate.

Cody Hatch <>
"A society that puts equality...ahead of freedom will end up with
neither equality nor freedom." -- Milton Friedman

For pages on other types of natural disasters - including lightning strikes, tornados, hurricanes, volcanoes, floods, global warming and more - as well as some great satellite and tree photos, clicking the "Up" button immediately below takes you to the Index page for this Environment section.

Back Home Up Next