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Using soils science to tackle Asia's arsenic problem


I spent a lot of time staring at textbooks as an undergraduate at Stanford, despite majoring in geology in an attempt to avoid that fate. The soils class I took from Scott Fendorf, PhD, professor of environmental earth system science, was a welcome relief - it was a chance to blend challenging academic tasks with physical ones. Fendorf's vision of earth science inspired me: It seemed animated, integrated, humanitarian.

So I'm happy to see that Fendorf and his collaborators at Columbia and the University of Delaware are continuing to address what the World Health Organization has called "the largest poisoning of a population in history." In South and Southeast Asia, as many as 100 million people every day are exposed to unsafe levels of arsenic, which occurs naturally in the groundwater in that region. Arsenic exposure has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease and developmental disorders, among other health consequences.

Fendorf and colleagues review the biogeochemical and hydrologic processes that underlie the public health crisis in the May 28 issue of Science, highlighting the lateral and vertical patchiness of groundwater arsenic concentrations. And they lay out fairly simple solutions to the problem: more well testing (and retesting) by governments and better use of geological data to target zones low in arsenic for installation of community wells. Most importantly, they conclude:

Every effort should be made to prevent irrigation by pumping from deeper aquifers that are low in As. The accumulation of As in paddy soil and rice grains is a source of concern, but deep aquifers should not be compromised by abstraction for irrigation. This precious resource must be preserved for drinking-the most direct and efficient route of exposure to As.

Photo by Syed Touhid Hassan

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