Legal proceedings against the Natural Environment Research Council to win damages for the victims of mass arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh have begun.
A test case being pursued by two London law firms could open the way to large numbers of claims.
The lawyers claim that Nerc's British Geological Survey was negligent for not testing for arsenic in water from wells being sunk across the country during survey work on behalf of the British government in 1992.
Bozena Michalowska, a solicitor with Leigh, Day & Co, said that if it had, a mitigation programme could have been initiated sooner and the claimants would have been spared sickness.
The BGS said its testing did not include arsenic as it was not regarded as a likely threat at the time. "BGS does not accept that they can be blamed for the suffering which has occurred," it said.
The costs of bringing the case are being met by legal aid and could rise to £1 million, according to Ms Michalowska. If the claimants win, the costs will be met by Nerc. Damages might reach £30 million.
Some believe the money might be better spent tackling the problem in Bangladesh, where 30 million to 36 million people are drinking contaminated water and face the prospect of developing cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
Nadim Khandaker, a Bangladeshi scientist working on a mitigation case at the Sandia National Laboratory, US, said: "Wouldn't it be better to spend money on proper science and a mitigation strategy?"