Academic journal article Journal of Health Population and Nutrition

Groundwater Arsenic and Education Attainment in Bangladesh

Academic journal article Journal of Health Population and Nutrition

Groundwater Arsenic and Education Attainment in Bangladesh

Article excerpt


While groundwater arsenic has plagued many countries, including Argentina, Mexico, India, Nepal, the USA, and Vietnam [1], in Bangladesh, the problem has been called "the largest poisoning of a population in history" [2-4].

Arsenic poisoning is calamitous. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that drinking arsenic-contaminated water on a regular basis increases the risk of numerous cancers and can lead to skin pigmentation changes and hyperkeratosis [5]. Drinking from arsenic-contaminated tube wells has chronically poisoned millions of Bangladeshis; building on Sohel et al. [6] and Flanagan et al. [7] estimated in 2012 that in Bangladesh over 40.000 deaths per year are due to arsenic poisoning. According to Chen et al. [8], arsenic-contaminated drinking water more than doubled Bangladeshi's lifetime mortality risk from cancers of the liver, bladder, and lung (229.6 vs 103.5 per 100,000 population).

Extensive reviews are available for studies of the physical, neurological, social, and psychological consequences of arsenicosis in Bangladesh (e.g., [1, 9, 10]). The literature, however, appears mute on arsenic's effects on education attainment. Education generally increases lifetime earnings, with primary school education having the largest return [11, 12]. Moreover, greater education attainment by a country's population has been found to spur economic growth [13-15]. Given the economic importance of education, it seems worth asking whether the physiological effects and social stigma associated with drinking arsenic-contaminated water reduce education attainment for those who grow up drinking such water. In this paper, we report our estimates of the effects of drinking arsenic-contaminated water on both primary school attendance by young Bangladeshi boys and total years of education completed by young Bangladeshi males.

Children are struck especially hard by arsenic poisoning. Given this study's focus on school attendance and education attainment, neurological and social effects of arsenicosis are particularly pertinent as reduced cognitive capacity inhibits education attainment, and shunning by peers could discourage school attendance.

Studies have established adverse effects of arsenic on children's verbal comprehension, long-term memory [16], attention [16], cognitive development [17, 18], neurobehavioral development such as pattern memory and switching attention [19], and intelligence [20, 22]. Asadullah and Chaudhury [17] find significant effects of arsenic on mathematics scores for Bangladeshi children. According to Chowdhury et al. [23] and Khandoker et al. [24], victims of lesions and blemishes frequently experience being ostracized and shunned within their families and local communities, even to the extent of being excluded from marriage. Nasreen [25] provides several case studies of the adverse social effects of arsenicosis in Bangladesh.

Millions of groundwater wells were installed in Bangladesh from the 1970s onward [8], for the most part with funds from international agencies, with the goal of ending reliance on unsanitary surface water for drinking [26]. That a million or more of these wells were arsenic contaminated was long unknown [2-4, 27]. Estimates in the late 1990s [28, 29] revealed that some 35 million Bangladeshis were drinking their water from seriously contaminated wells. Subsequent efforts by the Bangladeshi government to alert households to the threat of arsenic-contaminated tube wells has reduced the proportion of the population drinking from such wells, but the number has remained high-the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations Children's Fund [30] have estimated that 12.5 % of Bangladeshis, or 20 million people, still regularly drank arsenic-contaminated water in 2012-2013. An extensive literature assessing efforts to reduce arsenic poisoning has developed (e.g., [19] [31-34]).

The progress made by Bangladesh in reducing households' reliance on arsenic-contaminated wells is evident in Table 1 which presents Bangladeshis' exposure to various levels of arsenic in their drinking water in 2000, 2009, and 2012-2013. …

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