Global

  • Court clears geologists in Bangladesh arsenic case

    Catherine Brahic

    27/02/04

The British Court of Appeal has rejected a bid to make a group of British geologists responsible for failing to detect arsenic contamination in water in Bangladesh.

Binod Sutradhar, a Bangladeshi who suffers from arsenic poisoning, alleges that the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) was negligent in failing to check for the carcinogen during a 1992 water evaluation. If his case ultimately proves successful, it could open the door to hundreds of other Bangladeshis who would like to make similar cases against the organisation.

NERC refutes the claim, arguing that their geologists did not test for arsenic as they could not have known about the risk of arsenic poisoning and so it was not part of their survey. It also says that the purpose of the research was not to test the quality of the water for drinking purposes.

The Court of Appeal in London last week refused to allow the claim against NERC to go to trial, arguing that it was bound to fail. In doing so, the court overturned the ruling of a High Court judge in May last year allowing the trial to proceed (see Bangladesh arsenic victims to sue UK scientists).

Sutradhar and his legal team are expected to appeal the decision, which could go to the House of Lords for a final judgement. But Julie Bond, a lawyer representing NERC, said she felt confident that the council would eventually win the case, even if it did make it to trial.

Water contamination has been a serious problem for several decades in Bangladesh. With surface water often containing dangerous levels of bacteria and sewage, in the 1970s and '80s UNICEF sank nearly one million drinking wells. But in the 1990s, widespread cases of arsenic poisoning began to appear.

The water survey at the centre of the controversy was carried out by the British Geological Society (BGS), a part of NERC, in Bangladesh in 1992. 

According to BGS, arsenic was not widely known to be present in the types of alluvial plains found in the region until an international meeting was called in Kolkata in 1995, three years after their study.

The villagers threatening action beg to differ. They allege that BGS had a duty of care to test for arsenic in 1992 given that arsenic testing was already in the World Health Organisation's general drinking water guidelines. Had the researchers identified the high levels of the toxin then, they say, they would have stopped drinking the polluted water and suffered to a lesser degree, if at all.

Long-term exposure to arsenic causes cancer of the skin, bladder, lungs and kidney. According to some estimates, Bangladesh has suffered one of the largest mass poisonings in history with up to 100,000 affected and 270,000 cancer related deaths a year.

The World Health Organisation advises there are solutions to providing safe drinking water in Bangladesh. These include drawing water with low levels of arsenic from either shallow groundwater or deep aquifers, harvesting rain water, chemically treating water in each household and piping water from safe or treated sources.