Poisoning data withheld

December 21, 2000

A leading geologist has accused a Natural Environment Research Council centre of withholding data about mass arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh. The accusation comes in the week after the NERC launched an openness initiative.

John McArthur, professor of geochemistry at University College London, said that he was denied access to geochemical information concerning levels of phosphorus, ammonia and carbonate gathered two years ago by the British Geological Survey but not released until June. He said:"The BGS had data that was absolutely key to understanding the chemical processes in the water for more than two years and refused to allow people such as myself to have access to it."

Millions of people in Bangladesh and West Bengal are still drinking arsenic-contaminated water from wells drilled by international agencies.

Professor McArthur is due to publish a research paper that draws on the BGS data. It identifies the final link in the chain of geological, chemical and biological events that led to the tragedy.

His work with colleagues Peter Ravenscroft and Syed Saffiullah suggests that buried peat deposits across the Bengal delta may be of central importance to the physical processes involved in the release of arsenic into water. This could explain the complex pattern of contaminated wells in the region.

Sheila Anderson, the NERC's head of communications, said the delay in releasing the data was caused by the necessity to peer review the BGS's work, which was commissioned by the government's Department for International Development.

She said the research council's drive towards making procedures and work more transparent would have had no influence on the timing of the data's release. "Our policy in relation to openness and transparency is within the bounds of peer review. We are committed not to go public on scientific data until after peer review," she said.

Professor McArthur welcomed the NERC's openness initiative, but he is sceptical about the impact it will make and whether it will prevent future delays in publishing data.

Other scientists, including American researchers Charles Harvey and Stuart Rojstaczer, praised the BGS for its work.

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