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Bangladesh mass poisoning mystery solved

One of the world's great poisoning mysteries may have been solved – the source of the arsenic that turns up in lethal quantities in hundreds of thousands of wells across Bangladesh. The answer is ponds.

Bangladesh occupies the flood-prone delta of the river Ganges. In the past half-century, villagers have had to dig pits for soil to raise their homes above the floods. Water-filled pits cover roughly a tenth of the delta, and appear to be poisoning the wells Bangladeshis sink for drinking water.

Organic carbon in silt and sewage settles on the bottom of the stagnant ponds and seeps underground, where it is eaten by microbes. This microbial oxidation releases arsenic already in the delta silt – it washed down into the delta from the Himalayas over thousands of years. The arsenic dissolves in underground water and is tapped by village wells.

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