Researchers To Study Origin, Health Effects Of Arsenic In Groundwater

Researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Center for International Earth Science Information Network announced on Aug. 2 that they have been awarded a five-year, $16.9 million grant renewal that will fund ongoing investigations into the health effects and geochemistry of arsenic and manganese exposure, particularly in groundwater of New England and South Asia.

The grant, from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP), will build upon Columbia University's SBRP research progress over the past six years in conjunction with a previous $11 million award. The funding will enable this multi-disciplinary team of scientists to conduct research concerning 'anthropogenic' and naturally occurring sources of human exposure to arsenic and manganese in New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Maine. The award also allows for a continuation of the group's work in Bangladesh, where tens of millions of people have been chronically exposed to naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water. Although arsenic is an environmental carcinogen that affects millions of people worldwide, at high levels such as those found in Bangladesh, it also is associated with a constellation of other adverse health effects, including diseases of the cardiovascular, pulmonary, endocrine and nervous systems.

According to the team's researchers, arsenic contamination of groundwater and soils is associated with serious and widespread public health, mitigation and environmental policy problems. "Arsenic contamination of groundwater has been documented in nearly 20 countries, including the United States as the result of either natural geologic processes or from mining, industrial and agricultural activities," said Joseph Graziano, professor of Environmental Health Sciences and director of the Columbia Superfund program. "Because exposure to arsenic in drinking water has been associated with the development of skin, bladder, kidney and lung cancers as well as non-carcinogenic effects such as diabetes, peripheral neuropathy and cardiovascular diseases, public health intervention strategies to reduce arsenic exposure are critical."

The latest Superfund grant also includes a component studying the effects of environmental arsenic on children's health. While exposure to arsenic has long been known to have neurological consequences in the occupational setting, to date there have been limited well-controlled studies of children or of the potential effects of chronic exposure to arsenic in groundwater used for drinking and cooking.

Since the early 1990s, when the epidemic of arsenic poisoning began to emerge in Bangladesh, India, and other countries in South Asia, it has been estimated that as many as 100 million people worldwide regularly drink or cook with well water with arsenic concentrations greater than 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L) or 10 parts per billion (ppb), the World Health Organization's maximum exposure level. Until the early 1970s, people in Bangladesh generally did not drink well water, but rather relied on microbially contaminated surface water, which caused a host of infectious diseases, particularly fatal diarrheal diseases in young children.

Ironically, the arsenic crisis arose as a result of the well-intentioned efforts of non-governmental organizations, which installed millions of tube wells throughout the country in an attempt to shift communities away from the consumption of microbially contaminated surface water, not realizing that the groundwater was naturally enriched with arsenic.

"I am delighted that we have been given the opportunity to continue our efforts to link our growing understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of arsenic release to groundwater with more effective mitigation in the U.S. and in Bangladesh," said Alexander van Geen, Doherty Senior Research Scientist at Lamont-Doherty and associate director of the Columbia Superfund program.

Joseph Graziano:

Mailman School of Public Health:

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory:

Center for International Earth Science Information Network:

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