60-Second Science

Why Bangladesh Water Contains Arsenic

In a study in the journal Nature Geoscience, M.I.T. researchers identify what they believe is the sequence of events whereby arsenic trapped in the sediment of the Ganges Delta is finding its way into the drinking water supply of Bangladesh. Cynthia Graber reports

It seemed like a good idea—because rivers and ponds in Bangladesh were contaminated with bacteria, Bangladeshis switched to wells. But soon after, in the early ‘80s, researchers realized those wells were harming Bangladeshis with a new poison—arsenic.

The underground sediment of the Ganges Delta contains arsenic. In 2002 M.I.T. researchers determined that microbes digesting organic carbon were freeing that trapped arsenic. But where did the carbon come from and how was the arsenic getting into the water supply? The M.I.T. team now thinks they have the answers, which they report in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Using a six-square-mile test plot, they found that the organic carbon comes from shallow ponds that were dug to provide soil for flood protection. The carbon compounds sink in the pondwater and seep underground where bacteria digest them, setting up the perfect chemical conditions to free up the soil’s arsenic. Groundwater flow then brings the arsenic-rich water to the wells.

Future wells dug deep enough, to the low-arsenic part of the aquifer, could help. Rice fields filter arsenic from the water, so wells under those fields could also be part of an answer to a problem affecting millions of Bangladeshis.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is an exact transcript of the audio in the podcast.]

Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.




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