You feel dizzy, have body aches, and are out of sorts. Do you know what is causing them? You may be ailing from LUST – but not the usual kind. Your symptoms are probably caused by drinking water drawn from aquifers polluted by sewage, or gasoline, or hazardous chemicals from Leaking Underground Storage Tanks (LUST).
Pollution is, of course, a subjective and often emotionally charged term, one that we have used to describe local environmental traumas. However, because of human activities, environmental traumas like groundwater pollution are now regional instead of local; continuous rather than episodic.
There is no other environmental issue more important than safe and clean drinking water. It is water that separates us from other planets in the solar system. A continuous supply of clean water is our inalienable right. “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” Yet in many countries, including Bangladesh, we cannot drink water because it is squandered and polluted by industry, agriculture, sewage treatment plants, septic tanks, cesspools, outhouses, household trash, landfills, feedlots and LUSTs.
The severity of groundwater pollution caught our attention in 1978 when over half the children born between 1974 and 1978 in the town of Love Canal near Niagara Falls had birth defects such as enlarged feet, heads, hands and legs. There were also high rates of miscarriages and mental disabilities. Tests have shown conclusively that these health-related problems were caused by water poisoned by the toxic chemicals dumped in a pit by the Hooker Chemical Corporation.
Bangladeshis became aware of groundwater pollution in 1993 when arsenic, a deadly poison with a history of use in assassinations, found in abundance in the soil and rocks, leached up through the water table in millions of tube wells drilled across the country to provide villagers with clean water. Arsenic is a known carcinogen which can cause cancers of skin, lung and bladder.
Chemicals and dyes released into nearby canals by the garment factories and tanneries channeling untreated effluents into open gutters turned local groundwater into turbid sewage water. Fertilizers (chemical and “night soil”), pesticides and unkempt animal lots with a high density of animals, shallow depth to the water table and poor lot drainage are also contaminating groundwater. Some pesticides remain in water for many months to many years.
Household garbage left in front of the houses (palatial structures in the posh residential areas of Dhaka included), filthy streets with live animals of all sorts and other unsanitary practices requiring people to defend their sensitivities from the putrid emanations are issues for groundwater pollution. Additionally, the unsightly, malodorous human excrements strewn in open areas and people emptying “chamber pots” by the roadside, a common practice in rural Bangladesh, aggravates the situation. They can be washed away by rain and eventually end up in the groundwater.
Because groundwater moves very slowly, contamination often remains undetected for long periods of time. This makes cleanup of a contaminated water supply difficult, if not impossible.
The consequences of drinking contaminated groundwater are often serious. It has been estimated that about 75% of all human disease is related to unsafe water and poor sanitation and hygiene. Contaminated water is mainly responsible for trachoma, blindness, elephantiasis, cholera, typhoid, infectious hepatitis, polio myelitis and intestinal worms. Diarrhea from contaminated water afflicts many in Bangladesh, and is a major contributor to malnutrition, particularly in children.
Ironically it is the non-affluent who suffers most for the effluents produced by the affluent.
The contamination of groundwater has left a legacy of costly and deadly effects in Bangladesh. The profound and devastating health effects of drinking arsenic-polluted water cannot and probably will never be fully measured. The World Health Organization has called it “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.”
As much as we try to adopt a greener outlook towards the environment, it is impossible to prevent generating waste. Thus, if we want to embrace our green inheritance and not despoil it, we should cleanup our act without further delay. Otherwise, we will be leaving behind poison for our future generations to drink.
The writer is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.