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Researchers challenge conventional wisdom to identify source of lead contamination in Bangladesh

What could be causing lead contamination in one of the poorest corners of the world - a place where roads are scarce and there are almost no vehicles emitting gas exhaust? That's the question that an interdisciplinary team of Stanford researchers hopes to answer as part of an effort to stop the spread of lead contamination in parts of rural Bangladesh.

A recent Stanford Report story explains how the team began to suspect the Bangladesh's agriculture sector as the culprit of the contamination and why their theory challenges conventional wisdom:

Based on the evidence of higher lead levels in farm land compared with levels in nearby homes, [Stephen Luby, MD,] speculated that the contamination was coming from an agricultural product, possibly pesticide, and being absorbed by plants.

A similar story played out in the U.S. apple industry during the late 19th century and early 20th century when the use of lead arsenate pesticides contributed to the contamination of thousands of acres and sickened many field workers.

When he floated his hypothesis to other experts in the field, Luby was met with skepticism. Responding to an email from Luby, one wrote that he was "perplexed" by the idea, while another scientist wrote he "would be very surprised" if Luby's theory proved correct. "They thought I was crazy," Luby said. "It was pretty direct and troubling because it came from people who have been in Bangladesh a long time."

Despite the doubts, Luby pushed on. With colleagues, he collected hundreds of blood samples from residents of agricultural areas. Luby didn't have the funding, however, to test the samples for lead, carry out surveys and do other related work. "Then EVP came along," Luby said. With the program's support, Luby and his fellow project investigators, Assistant Professor of Economics Pascaline Dupas and Woods senior fellows Scott Fendorf (Earth sciences) and Roz Naylor (Earth sciences, FSI), plan to look for lead in blood and soil samples, examine evidence of past contamination and develop ways to test pesticides for the dangerous metal.

Previously: Arsenic responsible for 20 percent of Bangladeshi deaths and Using soils science to tackle Asia’s arsenic problem

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