An interdisciplinary approach to resolve arsenic poisoning of rural poor Bangladesh

Interdisciplinary Student Research

By Imme Groet, Hugo van Mens, Martijn Savenije

Chronic arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh through contaminated drinking water results in a major public health burden, especially for the rural poor segment of the population. Arsenic was first detected in the groundwater in the 1980s in West Bengal, India. Several studies by different scientists have been performed and solutions have been proposed. Many attempts have been made to resolve the problem. However, the problem still remains unresolved for large parts of the rural population. No single discipline succeeded in finding a solution. The problem contains many different facets that are the domain of various disciplines. Thus an integrated approach is necessary to understand and eventually resolve the problem.

An interdisciplinary literature research has been performed by three students who majored in Human Geography, Business Studies and Medical Informatics. The goal of the study was to generate new insights into the problem in order to be able to suggest possible solution strategies. Data from field research of the Arsenic Mitigation and Research Foundation (AMRF) was used to explain differences in health outcomes and find solution strategies. A public health model from the Dutch Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) has been used to integrate the theories and results (see figure below).

rivmTranslated and adapted from RIVM 2011, Nationaal Kompas Volksgezondheid.

The main conclusion is that solutions from single actors or single disciplines are insufficient, due to the complexity of the problem. In order to respond to the acuteness of the problem, providing direct relief in the form of water supply and medical treatment to victims is necessary in the short term. This should be combined with handing over the maintainance of the technical and organizational solutions to the local population in the medium term. Education programs will have to inform local communities and leaders, which will defeat the social stigma that comes with arsenic poisoning. This approach should be aimed explicitly at improving the health condition and resilience of the local population to cope with physical, mental and social stress. In the long run, governmental reforms are necessary to provide the rural poor sufficient resources and education to be able to maintain access to clean water sources, gain job opportunities that raise their standard of living and to afford basic health care. Furthermore, it has been shown that a public health approach can be used to comprehensively address the arsenic-related public health burden in Bangladesh.

iisThis study was performed in the context of the Interdisciplinary Project course that is part of the bachelor Future Planet Studies at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Amsterdam. The course aims to design and execute research in an interdisciplinary team and to produce new insights with regard to current complex issues.

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