Published online 26 February 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040223-8

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Geologists cleared in Bangladeshi poisoning case

Court finds British team not negligent for failing to spot arsenic.

Many of Banladesh's wells are laced with arsenic.Many of Banladesh's wells are laced with arsenic.© AP

A British court has ruled that a geological survey team is not to blame for failing to detect arsenic contamination in Bangladesh's well water. Bangladeshi villagers had accused the British Geological Survey (BGS) of negligence, arguing that it should have spotted the danger.

Lawyers representing the villagers plan to appeal against the decision, which is expected to prevent other lawsuits against the BGS in this matter from going ahead.

Arsenic poisoning is a serious issue in Bangladesh, where natural water supplies are contaminated with the poison by natural run-off from the Himalayas.

The problem only emerged in the 1990s, after wells were dug in the country in an attempt to find safer drinking water for its inhabitants. Before then, the main source of drinking water was surface supplies, which were frequently contaminated with sewage and dangerous bacteria.

In response, the Bangladeshi government and the children's charity UNICEF sunk more than a million wells in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1992, the BGS undertook a pilot survey, one purpose of which was to obtain limited data relevant to the toxicity of well water.

The study looked for chemical contaminants such as iron and phosphorous, but did not look for arsenic. The BGS found no contaminants of significant toxicity. Only in 1995, when villagers began to display symptoms of poisoning such as major skin lesions, did experts realize that the water was heavily polluted.

"At the time of the study, there was no reason to expect arsenic to be there," says David Lynn, director of science and innovation at the Natural Environment Research Council, which runs the BGS. "In many respects, it was not an obvious thing to look for," agrees Andy Meharg, a biogeochemist at the University of Aberdeen, UK.

But critics of the study say there was a reason to suspect the presence of the poison.

Poisoned neighbours

Bozena Michalowska-Howells of London-based law firm Leigh, Day and Co., which prepared the lawsuit against the BGS, says that a similar problem in neighbouring West Bengal was documented in a World Health Organization bulletin as long ago as 1988. She believes that the BGS ought to have been aware of this.

Lord Justice Kennedy of the Court of Appeal rejected the Bangladeshis' case, however, declaring that the BGS did not have a direct duty to ensure that the villagers were safe. Unless the appeal succeeds, the case will not proceed to trial.

Millions of Bangladeshis continue to drink water tainted with arsenic. The problem has been described as the worst mass poisoning in history - health experts estimate that 100,000 people living on the Bengal delta have suffered debilitating skin lesions. Other effects of the contamination include cancer and neurological problems.

Meharg suggests that villagers could obtain safer water by collecting some of Bangladesh's huge annual rainfall. "But they would need to store it cleanly," he says. "As soon as it hits the ground it's contaminated."

The BGS is playing a role in beating the problem, points out Lynn. "Since 1995, the BGS has led a major survey of arsenic in Bangladeshi groundwater," he says. It has been trying, in part, to steer villagers towards the least polluted wells.