Costs of arsenic contamination

Dhaka,  Tue,  26 September 2017
Published : 21 Aug 2017, 22:04:29
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Costs of arsenic contamination

Arsenic is not merely the name of a disease-causing substance but the driver of mass-poisoning in Bangladesh. The government should continue to invest more on arsenic mitigation through building partnership with private sector and NGOs, writes Abdul Bayes
At this time, there is no shortage of water per se in southern Bangladesh. But pure drinking water is acutely short in supply. A few positive reactions in response to this writer's recent article published in this column on water treatment and harvesting were received. The write-up was based on a field visit. 

One of the appreciations came from Peter Ravenscroft of Cambridge, UK who also sent a research article to this writer. It is all about deadly arsenic contamination that causes huge costs on humans and household wealth. It is written by Sara V Flanagan, Richard B Johnston and Yan Zhenga under the title 'Arsenic in tube well water in Bangladesh: health and economic impacts and implications for arsenic mitigation'. The situation needs a closer look despite data dating long back. 

The reason the writer dwells on arsenic, even at the cost of paraphrasing, is the apparent negligence in Bangladesh in grasping the gravity of the menace and seeking solutions. Mitigating the problem of water with high levels of arsenic requires a sizeable investment in water supply infrastructure - both from public and private sectors. In a regime where economists generally tend to turn a deaf ear to such an important aspect, the paper provides evidence that such investment is economically justified when health and economic burdens of unabated arsenic exposure are considered.

Arsenic is not merely the name of a disease-causing substance but the driver of mass-poisoning in Bangladesh.  Although exposure to arsenic through drinking water sourced from groundwater is a global public health problem, the researchers reveal from survey data - from 2000 to 2010 - that an estimated 35 million to 77 million people in the country have been chronically exposed to arsenic in their drinking water. This has been described as the largest mass-poisoning in history.

The researchers have attempted to reach an estimate of economic losses re-sulting from the arsenic-related deaths. They have calculated lost productivity in terms of per capita gross domestic product (GDP). According to estimates by the International Monetary Fund, per capita GDP of Bangladesh in 2009 was 1,465 purchasing power parity dollars. "If we assume steady economic growth and an average loss of 10 years of productivity per arsenic-attributable death, over the next 20 years arsenic-related deaths in Bangladesh (one in every 18 deaths) could lead to a loss of US$ 12.5 billion, provided arsenic exposure (> 10 ?g/L) remains the same as in 2009. Our assumption of an average loss of 10 years of productivity per arsenic-attributable death was based on lost productivity owing to deaths from types of cancer known to be arsenic-related."

Given the same assumptions, a 'quick' calculation would show that the total loss in 2017 would tentatively be $36 billion (roughly one-fifths of GDP). In other words, losses from arsenic would be close to the returns from remittance and ready-made garment exports together in a year.  It is simply a colossal loss that a nation can hardly live with. There is another point to ponder. "Because the loss in GDP attributable to deaths does not take into account health costs or other costs to society, it probably underestimates the full economic burden. This burden can be expected to grow as the country develops and life expectancy rises. The morbidity burden will also increase as diagnostic tests improve and better treatment methods prolong the lives of people with chronic arsenic-related disease, and the costs of medical care will increase in tandem."

The non-calculated hidden costs of the disease are no less damaging. It is expected that arsenic-related diseases and deaths will increase in future because the latency period after exposure lasts several decades. "Studies on chronic arsenic exposure in utero and in early childhood suggest an increased risk of fetal loss, infant death, reduced birth weight and impaired cognitive function in children, as well as significantly higher risks of impaired lung function, renal cancer and death from lung cancer, lung disease and acute myocardial infarction later in life. Since an entire generation has now grown up exposed to arsenic, some children will become 'arsenic orphans' as their caretakers succumb to arsenic-related diseases. These children may also be exposed to arsenic themselves, which would perpetuate the cycle of arsenic-related disease."

It is also illustrative to examine the impact of arsenic exposure on children, not yet born. The future health of this segment, as shown by several studies, will be affected by concentration of arsenic in water they begin drinking in utero. This exercise shows that any population-level reduction in arsenic exposure will result in decreased arsenic-related morbidity and mortality among children yet to be born. Similarly, any failure to sustain progress in arsenic mitigation will result in deaths that could have been prevented among members of future generations. However, because of uncertainty and individual variation in arsenic exposure and the latency period before onset of disease, these analyses are qualitative and semi- quantitative predictions at best. 

It is true that due to various measures adopted by the government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private sector over time, the incidence of arsenic exposure has apparently gone down. But a deep dive into the actual determinants would possibly leave less room for consolation. Bangladesh government should continue to invest more on arsenic mitigation through building partnership with private sector and NGOs. "The effectiveness of such an approach was demonstrated during the United Nations Children's Fund 2006-2011 country programme which provided safe water to arsenic-contaminated areas at a cost of US$ 11 per capita. National scale-up of such an approach would cost a few hundred million US dollars but would improve health and productivity of the population, especially in future generations." Further, special credit arrangements should be made available for small and medium enterprises to establish water-purifying centres. Like water market for irrigation, a private sector-led market for drinking water with a competitive face should form the basis of fighting against arsenic.  Arsenic makes lives of the present generation short and shabby; it also founders the fruits of the future generation. The sooner we realise this reality, the better.

The writer is a former Professor of Economics at

 Jahangirnagar University.

abdul.bayes@brac.net
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