Kushtia, Bangladesh: Majeda Khatun holds out her hands to show the black scars left from drinking contaminated water in Bangladesh where an estimated 50 million people have been exposed to arsenic poisoning.
For years, Majeda’s hands were covered in ugly lesions caused by arsenic in her drinking water.
But her life was transformed by a local charity which provided her with a simple bucket filter and the scars are but a lingering legacy of the poison.
“It’s three years since I’ve been using this filter,” Majeda said, pointing to the plastic buckets on the veranda of her mud house near the western Bangladesh town of Kushtia.
“I have never seen those ugly lesions again,” she added.
Majeda is one of millions of people in Bangladesh and eastern India who have been exposed to arsenic in their drinking water.
In the 1970s and 80s development agencies drilled hundreds of thousands of tube wells across rural Bangladesh in a bid to ensure access to clean water.
The tube wells aimed to eradicate water-borne diseases which were then the biggest killer in the impoverished country. The wells, however, were later found to be contaminated because they drew water from shallow arsenic-rich sediments.
In recent years, about half a million villagers like Majeda have escaped the curse of arsenic-tainted water by using the sono filter.
“I don’t know anyone who is using this filter who is still living with arsenic,” said Abul Hussam, the inventor of the technology, speaking to AFP by telephone from his home in the eastern US state of Maine.
“The sono filter completely removes arsenic from water.”
Hussam, an analytical chemist and university professor who was born in the Kushtia district but has been living in the US since 1978, invented the filter in 2004 after devoting much of his life to finding an easy and cheap solution to arsenic contamination.
Earlier this year his low-tech solution, which uses materials such as charcoal and sand to filter the water, won him the prestigious million-dollar Grainger Challenge Gold Award, made annually by the National Academy of Engineering in the US.
Growing up in one of the worst-affected districts, Hussam saw first-hand the suffering caused by arsenic.
“In 1997, when I first measured arsenic in the water at Kushtia, I was completely taken aback. It was at least a hundred times more than the normal level,” he said. “Yet people have been drinking the water for years and suffering with all sorts of arsenic-related diseases.”
Experts blame the contamination for at least 100,000 cases of skin lesions.
Studies have found links to a range of conditions including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and reproductive disorders. Exposure is also linked to circulation problems that can lead to amputations, according to the WHO.
The country is now bracing for an increase in cancer cases particularly of the skin, bladder, kidney and lungs, as the long-term effect of the poison becomes clear.
“People say flood is the biggest enemy for Bangladeshis. But it happens once in ten years. Arsenic is worse than flood. It is a silent killer,” Hussam said.
A range of projects have been undertaken to try to tackle the problem and thousands of tube wells were abandoned, but the water supplies of millions remain affected.
Hussam was among the first to start looking for a simple solution.
His invention, named after the laboratory he set up in his home town, costs $35 dollars and removes virtually all trace of arsenic from well water.
It is also environmently friendly and each filter can be used for at least ten years.
The filters are being assembled at the rate of about 200 a week in Kushtia by a non-governmental organisation overseen by Hussam’s brother Abul Muneer.
So far, more than 42,000 have been distributed, bringing clean water to some 500,000 people. Around 10,000 filters have been distributed to primary schools.
Hussam said he donated 70% of his prize money to buying thousands of filters for some of Bangladesh’s poorest villagers. The rest he said he will use to refine the filter’s design.
“Our target is now to find a smaller filter so that we can produce and market it quickly across the country. It will be the best way to popularise the filter and make arsenic history,” Hussam said.
At a factory in Kushtia Hussam’s brother Muneer, a doctor by profession, has already produced some smaller versions of the filter.
“They have shown some fantastic results. We hope within a year or two these filters will be available everywhere in the country,” he said.