A brief history of poisonous wallpaper

Lucinda Hawksley has printed 275 color facsimiles of Victorian wallpapers in Bitten by Witch Fever. Beyond their lovely design, the vibrant wallpapers shared a common trait: they were pigmented with lethal arsenic. Read the rest

The issue with arsenic

Arsenic. Hearing the word in America usually brings up black and white mental images of the film "Arsenic and Old Lace." Yet, it is not an old issue. People around the world are exposed to dangerous levels of arsenic in their water.

Speaking today at the American Geophysical Union, Lex van Green discussed the issue of arsenic in well water in the Asian sub-continent, primarily in Bangladesh and Bihar, India. His concern is that even though people are aware of the problem, very little is being done to address it.

People continue to drill new wells without determining their safety (safe levels are set at less than 10 micrograms per liter of water). Van Green's data, collected from 2012-13, show that 50% of people in the area assessed drink water containing arsenic at unsafe levels. However, 100% of people live near safe wells. Additionally, only about a third of people who become aware that their wells are contaminated switch to new wells by either drilling new wells or using their neighbor's wells.

The difference between a safe well and an arsenic contaminated well is depth. Sedimentation by ancient arsenic rich waters along river deltas left layers of arsenic containing soil near the surface of the Earth. To get past the arsenic to clean aquifers, one has only to drill deeper than 100 meters down. However, wells are expensive to drill, and the deeper the well, the more expensive it will be.

So, the problem in these areas where there is no infrastructure to deliver treated water to people boils down one of inequality. Read the rest

Uncovering the cause of the largest mass poisoning in history

Twenty-one children died in India yesterday after eating school lunch food that had been contaminated with insecticide. Authorities are still investigating what happened there, but the Generation Anthropocene podcast has a related episode I wanted to point you towards in the meantime. It's about the struggle to understand the causes behind the largest mass poisoning in history, which began in Bangladesh in the 1980s and is still happening. The 25-minute podcast covers the work of the epidemiologists, doctors, and geologists who figured out that the skin lesions and organ damage affecting millions of Bangladeshis were caused by arsenic ... and then uncovered where all that arsenic was coming from. Read the rest