Does Arsenic Mitigation in Bangladesh Raise Exposure to Bacterial and Viral Pathogens?

Lead PI: Dr. Alexander F. Van Geen, Patricia Culligan , Brian J. Mailloux

Unit Affiliation: Columbia Engineering

January 2007 - December 2011
Asia ; Bangladesh
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: By building on a new understanding of how differences in local recharge of shallow aquifers are related to the geology of fluvio-deltaic aquifers, a knowledge that came out of on-going work focused on arsenic by Columbia University and partners in Bangladesh, this study seeks to explore, to our knowledge for the first time, whether spatial and temporal patterns in the distribution of certain forms of diarrheal disease are also influenced by local hydrogeology. Two recent findings motivate this study. The first is that the red paint applied on millions of private tubewells in Bangladesh containing >50 ug/L arsenic (the local standard, which is 5-fold higher than the WHO guideline of 10 ug/L) has led approximately one third of the exposed population to switch its consumption of untreated groundwater to a nearby well painted green because it contained <50 ug/L As (Ahmed, 2006). The second is the outcome of detailed field investigations in Columbia University's main study area of Araihazar showing that shallow (<20 m deep) tubewells that are low in As are typically located in areas where shallow sandy aquifers extend essentially to the surface, whereas shallow tubewells that are high in As are located in areas where shallow aquifers are capped by a low hydraulic conductivity layer of mud (i.e. clay or fine grained silt). Therefore, well testing for arsenic has re-directed a large proportion of the Bangladesh population towards drinking untreated groundwater from shallow aquifers that are relatively unprotected from the widespread microbial contamination of surface water bodies of the region due to poor sanitation. The concern is that, whereas well-switching had the undoubted benefit of reducing As exposure, it may also have had the unintended consequence of increasing human-exposure to microbial pathogens. Clearly, the goal of public health interventions in Bangladesh, and similarly affected countries, should be to reduce exposure to arsenic without increasing exposure to microbial pathogens. In support of this important goal, this team of investigators proposes to generate new knowledge concerning the ecology of organisms causing diarrheal disease in developing countries, by investigating the potential linkages between hydrogeology, the distribution of microbial pathogens in shallow aquifers and the occurrence of diarrheal disease in a large and well-studied population. We also aim to develop and test preliminary methods for predicting the occurrence of pathogen-contamination in aquifers based on occurrence of arsenic (which is already widely-monitored) and hydrogeologic/geomorphic setting (based on satellite imagery, field mapping and near-surface geophysics).


National Institute of Health Emerging Infectious Diseases - Collaborative Research




Michael Emch, Larry McKay


Barnard University


University of North Carolina, University of Tennesse


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wells arsenic (as) diarrheal disease sanitation water hydrogeology groundwater aquifers