RANDOM THOUGHTS: Killer Arsenic - BY: Dr. A.Q. Khan

Killer Arsenic
Dr. A.Q. Khan


A few days ago a frightening and shocking front page news and an editorial appeared in the daily Dawn revealing how ground water all over Pakistan is contaminated with deadly, poisonous arsenic metal. The next day the daily News published an editorial highlighting the same problem while some critics opined that it was an exaggerated report. The fact remains, whether only a few people die or are affected by it or many, it is a highly poisonous metal and the government should take immediate remedial measures. But I donít have high hopes in this regard. Another metrobus, highway, flyover or orange train seems more attractive to our rulers.

How does it occur? Our earth was initially an aqueous mass. Over time the outer layer cooled and hardened but the inner core remained a molten mass. When the cooling process started, the lighter metals Ė silica, etc. Ė floated to the top. In this way, arsenic also came into the upper layer. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), naturally occurring arsenic contamination is a concern in many countries, including Bangladesh, Argentina, Chile, China, India, Mexico, Thailand and the Americas. In Bangladesh and northern India alone, about 500 million people are at risk. Many tube wells, which were built with international aid to draw groundwater as an alternative to bacteria-tainted surface water, frequently tap into aquifers contaminated by arsenic. Drinking arsenic-rich water over a long period of time can lead to arsenicosis resulting in various health conditions, which include skin problems (such as changes in skin colour, hard patches of skin on the palms and soles of the feet), cancer of the skin, bladder and lung and diseases of the blood vessels of the legs and feet. Arsenic can be found in earth, plants, animals, water, humans, etc. If a large amount of arsenic is swallowed by humans in a form that is readily absorbed, it can cause rapid poisoning and death. The gut, the heart and the nervous system are all affected. Those who survive, suffer a painful life.

Nature/scientists have provided remedial medicines for most diseases and sometimes favoured human beings are appointed by the Almighty to help the sick and suffering. For arsenic, such a person has been sent to us. His name is Prof.Dr. Abul Hussam, Director of the Clean Water, Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at George Mason University, Virginia, USA. Prof. Hussam is originally from Bangladesh, a country heavily contaminated with arsenic in its water. As a student in Bangladesh (B.Sc, M.Sc.) he saw the suffering of his countrymen and decided to do something about it. After completing his Masters from Bangladesh, he went to the USA where he obtained a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Pittsburg. He then moved to George Mason University, Fairfax, Va. He never forgot his country and his people and, as a first step, diligently worked to develop a method which measured the exact quantity of arsenic in water. In this he succeeded in the early nineties.

To fight the menace, the National Academy of Engineers, USA, announced a prize of $ one million and a gold medal for any scientist/engineer who could invent a simple, cheap, electricity-free apparatus to eliminate arsenic from water. Thousands of scientists/engineers from all over the world entered the competition but, as M. Iqbal said: Yeh rutbae baland mila jisko mil gaya; Her muddaee ke wastey daro rasan kahan (only the lucky ones get the honour; it is not for all who long for it.) Prof. Hussam won the prize with his Sonofilter. It consists of a top bucket filled with locally available coarse river sand and a composite iron matrix. The sand filters out coarse particles and controls the flow of the water while the iron removes inorganic arsenic. The water then flows into a second bucket where it again filters through coarse river sand and then through wood charcoal to remove other contaminants. The final filter consists of fine river sand and wet brick chips to remove fine particles and stabilize the water flow. The system was tested by the National Academy of Engineering and by several independent laboratories and the filtered water was found to be totally arsenic-free. Prof. Hussam donated 70% of the prize for Sonofilters (11,000 of them) to be distributed in Bangladesh and other countries. In Bangladesh alone the filters are now preventing serious health problems in hundreds of thousands of people since first being distributed to the most hard-hit families in 2001. Since then, no new cases of arsenicosis have been detected in where people are using the filters, even in the worst contamination areas. A small Sonofilter costs between $ 15 and $ 30 and a large one (1,000 litres per hour) costs about $ 850. A small filter produces between 20 and 50 litres of clean water per hour and can serve two families.

A friendís daughter, who is doing Ph.D. in Chemistry in Italy/France under the Erasmus Mundus Sustainable Industry Chemistry Programme, visited Prof. and Mrs. Hussam while on a short visit to Washington. She later told me that they were an extremely kind and friendly couple who insisted she stay with them. She was shown the Sonofilter in the laboratory and Prof. Hussam gave her very useful hints for her work.

Prof. Hussamís work is as important to humanity as the inventions of penicillin and insulin. Millions of people are benefitted by it and our government should undertake the production of such units for the benefit of the common man. I hope that, like the inventors of penicillin and insulin, Prof. Hussam will also be honoured with a Nobel Prize for Chemistry by the Swedish Academy of Sciences. It may be noted here that Oral Rehydration Salt, which is saving millions of lives all over the world, was also invented by Bangladeshi doctors.

Posted on Sep 06, 17 | 6:44 am