HCE-START: Arsenic in groundwater in Bangladesh
The influence of domestic waste water on arsenic mobilization in ground water - geochemical and epidemiological investigations in Sylhet, Bangladesh
The United Nations consider clean water a human right, and access to clean water is one of the sustainable development goals. Implementing this in practice, however, remains a challenge, as in many parts of the world drinking water is polluted. One of the most serious contaminants is arsenic, which has long-term adverse health effects as well as increasing the risk of various cancers.
In Bangladesh, more than 90% of households consume untreated ground-water from hand-operated tubewells as their main source of drinking water. In the 1990s, it has been discovered that groundwater in Bangladesh con-tains arsenic, at levels as high as 4000 µg/l. About one quarter of the popu-lation of Bangladesh (approximatley 40 million people) use drinking water that exceeds the threshold (10µg/l) recommended by the World Health Organization.
These elevated arsenic levels are due to natural occurrence of arsenic in the ground and local biochemical processes. However, it is unknown which mechanisms influence the discharge of arsenic from the sediment into the groundwater. It is believed that organic carbon and phosphate in particular increase the release of arsenic. Human activities, e.g. use of latrines, can release these substances into the water.
The goal of this project is to understand the complex interactions of socio-cultural and sanitary factors that influence hydro-chemical processes leading to arsenic contamination of groundwater. Therefore, a research strategy is needed that considers both the temporal and spatial context of sanitary factors such as type of latrine, location, and utilization. This holistic approach is possible through the collaboration of project partners Dr. Amanda Wendt at the Institute of Public Health and Dr. Martin Maier at the Institute for Earth Sciences, Hydrochemistry and Hydrogeology department. Since 2015, Dr. Maier and his team have been carrying out hydrological and hydrochemical studies in Bangladesh in cooperation with the Heidelberg-based NGO AGAPE e.V..
The HCE-funded research project “The influence of domestic waste water on arsenic mobilization in ground water” is embedded in the ongoing cluster-randomized trial “Food and Agricultural Approaches to Reducing Malnutrition” (FAARM). The FAARM study is conducted by apl. Prof. Dr. Dr. Sabine Gabrysch and Dr. Amanda Wendt at the Institute of Public Health of the Heidelberg University in close cooperation with the NGO “Helen Keller International” (HKI). The study area is located in Sylhet Division in the northeast of Bangladesh, an area with high levels of arsenic pollution. Preliminary studies show that over 80% of tested wells contain arsenic levels above the WHO threshold of 10µg/l and almost half are above the Bangladeshi threshold of 50µg/l.
The HCE-START project is used as seed funding to establish the collaboration between Geology and Public Health, and to develop joint research proposals. The project will additionally serve as a platform for interdisciplinary dissertation projects.