Canadian Environmental Health Atlas

Understanding Our Environment is Key to Promoting Health and Preventing Disease

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Tragedy in Bangladesh

Tragedy in Bangladesh

Health Effects

Cancer is the disease primarily associated with arsenic. Arsenic and its compounds are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as carcinogenic to humans.1Long-term exposure has been associated with cancer of the skin, bladder, liver, and lung. Smokers, who have greater exposure to arsenic than non-smokers through their use of arsenic-containing tobacco products, are at extraordinarily high risk for lung cancer.2

Tragedy in Bangladesh

Arsenic toxicity is a global problem. In the 1970s, arsenic contamination increased dramatically in Bangladesh following an attempt by aid agencies to provide potable water to more people by drilling deep wells in communities where surface water was contaminated with microbes that cause diarrheal diseases. Tragically, many of the new wells contained arsenic-contaminated groundwater that affected millions of people in what has been described as the largest mass poisoning of a population in history (Figure 1).3

The contaminated wells, which were not as deep as the uncontaminated wells, were eventually capped. Unfortunately, the uncapped deeper wells were often found to be contaminated with another element, manganese, which a growing body of evidence suggests is toxic at higher levels.4