Canadian scientists attempt to fight arsenic with lentil in Bangladesh | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 15, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 15, 2016

Canadian scientists attempt to fight arsenic with lentil in Bangladesh

A group of Canadian scientists have come up with a simple antidote to arsenic poisoning which is lentil, a daily staple for most Bangladeshis, especially in villages.

The only caveat is that it has to be lentils grown in the great plains of Canada, especially in Saskatchewan province. The project is being led by Dr Judit Smits, a professor at the University of Calgary's Ecosystem and Public Health Department.

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The secret to the Canadian lentils, according to Dr Smits, lies in the very soil where these lentils are grown. The soil in the Great Plains region is rich with selenium, a mineral that has been found to fight arsenic. Most of the world's soil is deficient in selenium, including Bangladesh's, but not so with the Canadian soil.

As a toxicologist, Dr Smits has carefully followed the arsenic story in Bangladesh for some 20 years. But it was only recently, after conducting clinical tests, she and her team of scientists at University of Calgary came to the conclusion that food rich in selenium could actually fight arsenic.

The fact that lentils grown in the west of Canada are rich with high levels of selenium prompted Dr Smits and her team of scientists to consider a trial run in arsenic-prone areas in Bangladesh.

Dr Smits told the news agency from her office at the University of Calgary Alberta, Canada, that the first phase of a field study is now taking place in Shahrasti upazila in Chandpur district.

Beginning in August 2015, some 400 people, or 80 families, have started using lentils imported from Canada.

Shahrasti was chosen because of prevalence of high level of arsenic in its drinking water.

The participants are divided into two groups, with one group receiving lentils rich in selenium and the other low in selenium.

The participants are required to consume 65 gram of this lentil each day for six months.

It is no coincidence that Canada is the world's largest exporter of lentils - all kinds of lentil - and Bangladesh is one of its importers.

In August last, 10 tonnes of Saskatchewan lentils were received in initial delivery and later distributed among villagers in Shahrasti.

Dr Smits said the first results of the trial run are expected in September - October this year. “The good thing about this trial is that people don't have to change their habits as lentil is already a daily part of their diet,” she added.

The local cohorts of the project are the researchers and scientists from ICDDR,B in Dhaka. “They are an essential part of this investigation and we are grateful for their support and cooperation,” said Dr Smits.

In addition, two groups of scientists from the University of Saskatchewan are involved in the work.

The three-year-long project is being funded by the Canadian government and the Global Food Security. Partial funding has also been received from the University of Saskatchewan.

“We are very confident, the selenium-rich lentils could be a low-cost solution to Bangladesh's arsenic problem,” said Dr Smits.

Talking to the news agency, Dr Smits explained the connection between selenium and arsenic. “Based on the laboratory work that I've done with lab animals, we've found that selenium and arsenic can counteract each other.”

When people have selenium in their diet at a high enough level, selenium and arsenic will bind together in the bloodstream resulting in a naturally-occurring molecule, which will pass through the body as urine and feces, she said.

“For many years, we treated selenium poisoning with an arsenic solution. We knew selenium only as a toxicant, but in the 1970s we learned that it is an important part of our diet, but most food is deficient in this mineral,” said Dr Smits.

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