The Professor Who Solved a Mass-Poisoning Whodunit

Newsletter of the College of Science & Mathematics

The Professor Who Solved a Mass-Poisoning Whodunit

cosm_frisbie_250x250Criminal Justice may be the most popular major at Norwich. But it took an associate professor of chemistry to solve a truly terrible case on the other side of the globeā€”the largest mass poisoning of a population in history. Working in Bangladesh since 1997, analytical chemist Prof. Seth Frisbie revealed that over 50 million Bangladeshis were drinking water with unsafe arsenic levels from recently installed deep-water wells.

These wells supply drinking water to 97 percent of the populace. Analyses of water samples by Frisbie and his colleagues also discovered significant amounts of manganese, lead, nickel, chromium, and nearly three-dozen other inorganic chemicals. Long-term exposure to these heavy metals in Bangladesh pushed incidences of cancer and other chronic diseases to extraordinary levels. Children as young as seven were affected. And in some villages, few residents lived beyond the age of 30, Frisbie observed.

The Cornell-trained chemist was unwilling to sit idly by. That same year he worked with his wife and a handful of colleagues to establish the nonprofit Better Life Laboratories to more deeply investigate the causes of toxic drinking water. The team also scoured water samples for other trace minerals known to aggravate or mitigate toxic metal poisoning. The researchers partnered with the Bangladesh government, NGOs and other research institutions in North America and Europe. Frisbie has worked since then to continue his investigation and to pioneer swift, practical solutions for the impoverished country. These include developing keener, cheaper tests for drinking water arsenic and well-drilling strategies that can provide 85 percent of those affected access to safer drinking water.

This work has expanded into neighboring West Bengal, India and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Approximately 150 students from Norwich University have helped with various aspects of these projects. Some of these students have co-authored important scientific papers and conference posters with Dr. Frisbie and his longtime colleague from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Dr. Bibudhendra Sarkar, an Invited Speaker at the Nobel Symposium under the auspices of the Nobel Foundation in Sweden. A new project in Nepal is currently being planned.

This article originally appeared in the NU Bicentennial website 200 Things About Norwich.