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More Work Needed to Prevent Arsenicosis

A Ministry of Health official said on Thursday that safe drinking water and stoves will be provided by 2006 for the 500,000 people living in arsenic-affected areas.
By 2010, when the distribution map of arsenic poisoning is due to be completed, all affected populations will have been provided safe drinking and cooking facilities. Xiao Donglou, deputy director of the ministry's disease control department, announced the timetable at the Water Quality and Arsenic Mitigation international conference held in Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province.
Long-term consumption of arsenic, through water or air, can lead to skin cancer and ultimately death. It was not until 1986 that arsenicosis was first officially diagnosed in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. During the 1990s, cases were also found in Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Jilin, Qinghai, Ningxia and Liaoning, reaching a current total of 10,000 people.
Farmers, especially those in poverty-stricken rural areas, have drilled tens of millions of medium to deep wells which often tap into arsenic-rich sources, exposing them to chronic poisoning.
In Guizhou province, the disease has also been caused by burning arsenic-rich coal for cooking, heating and drying local staple foods such as corn and hot peppers.
The government started to drill safe wells and equip old stoves with chimneys in 2002. According to Xiao, 240 villages now have safe wells and 2,896 households safe stoves.
"China is making a significant difference," said Vanessa Tobin in charge of water security from the New York headquarters of the UN's Children's Fund (UNICEF).
"The hardest problem is low awareness of the disease amongst local people," said Xiao.
Many times, medical workers have painted the hand-pumps of arsenic-rich wells red to distinguish them from safe ones, but villagers continue to use them after they have left.
Xiao said the ministry plans to educate 85 percent of elementary and middle school students and 70 percent of housewives about arsenic poisoning.
Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization's representative to China, suggested that local medical workers and village-level officials should also receive training in preventative measures.
Christian Voumard, UNICEF's representative to China, said the initiative should not forget children -- the group most vulnerable to the disease.
The Ministry of Health says that children account for one-fifth of the total population affected by arsenic poisoning.
According to Wang Sanxiang, head of Endemic Prevention Center of Shanxi Province, excessive consumption of arsenic can damage children's intellectual development and nervous systems. Even if sources are immediately removed, children may still develop learning disabilities years later.
"Prevention is the only solution, as there is no cure," said Tobin.

(Xinhua News Agency November 26, 2004)

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