Rice paddies in Bangladesh, courtesy of On Earth where you will also find a scary article on what global warming could do to Bangladesh…
I am sure that many concerned parents, wheat and gluten intolerants/coeliacs and vegetarians will have tuned into tonight’s Channel 4 Dispatches programme on levels of inorganic (and highly toxic) arsenic in rice.
And, while rightly flagging up a possible problem for all of those groups, their risk shrinks to insignificant when compared with that run by the Bangladeshis who eat rice for, or with, every meal and whose rice supplies are nearly all heavily contaminated. However, what the programme did not say (and no reason for it to do so, it was not part of their remit) is why the Bangladeshis have such a terrible problem. Sadly, the Bangladeshi arsenic poisoning epidemic is one of those horrendous unintended consequences of what, at the time, appeared a good idea. With hindsight, and proper risk assessment (a very 21st century discipline), it would never have happened.
Back in the 1970s health risks in the low lying, and frequently flooded, lands of Bangladesh came mainly from infected, stagnant water supplies. In an attempt to access safer, non stagnant water, the World Bank and a number of large international charities sank hundreds of thousands, of ‘tube’ wells across Bangladesh to access ‘fresh’ water from underground. But what they totally failed to do, before sinking those wells, was to check the water supply from rocks below. It was only 20 years later when Bangladeshis were falling ill and dying in their thousands that they discovered that the rocks into which they had sunk the wells are massively high in toxic inorganic arsenic. So not only were the Bangladeshis drinking water heavily contaminated with arsenic, but that water was also being used to irrigate the rice which was their staple diet.
Between 2000 and 2003 4.04 million tube wells across Bangladesh were found to contain unsafe levels of arsenic. Since then attempts have been made to switch the population to safer alternative sources, but these are hard to come by and require huge infrastructure investment which a country such as Bangladesh can ill afford.
If you want to read more about the problem and how it might be tackled, there is a long paper from 2012 on the WHO website here. Closer to home you could read Micki Rose’s articles from 2010 on the FoodsMatter website. For the problem click here, for how to avoid high arsenic levels or to test your own levels, click here.