Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Unintended consequences

A new article in the Lancet makes it clear that the well-meaning effort to encourage the use of deep water wells in Bangladesh has exposed 77 million people to arsenic poisoning.

When the program to sink wells began, no testing was done to see if there was arsenic in the water. Statements have even been made that it was unlikely there would be arsenic in the geological formations under Bangladesh. As many as 10 million wells had been sunk ten years ago.

There have been plenty of warnings over the years about arsenic in the water. Ten years ago it was described as a worse mass poisoning than Bhopal or Chernobyl.

Why was this well-meaning? It was an effort to save the people from drinking surface water, run-off, river water, etc., which was likely to spread bacterial infections.

UNICEF was heavily involved, along with the World Bank. It was found that a quarter of a million children per year could be dying of water-borne infections. Times 40 years would mean 10 million deaths. Instead the development agencies have opted for an approach which will apparently lead to many times that number of deaths. Arsenic is slow-acting, so I gather the poisoning process makes you gradually feel sicker and less productive. I presume children were more at risk from water-borne infections because they have not built up immunity?

The source of the arsenic is 100% natural--there are similar sources affecting drinking water elsewhere in the world as well--and no satisfactory way of removing it from drinking water has been found. Don't bother calling Erin Brockovitch.

This all raises the question: has UNICEF killed more people than BP or Exxon Mobil? More generally, have the do-gooders killed more people than the capitalists?

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