The Largest Mass Poisoning in History

In the mid-1980s, a small problem began to surface in a relatively obscure corner of the world.  In 1994, just about a decade later, the World Health Organization published a statement that this little problem had developed into “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.”  On today’s show, we speak to the doctors, epidemiologists, and geologists who helped hunt down the origin of this tragic event.  Join us as we venture through the human body and through geologic time to uncover the twists and turns and remarkable coincidences responsible for this ongoing epidemic.

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Supplemental Material (**new feature!**)

1. Chemists, engineers, and doctors have been working since the mid-1990s to find solutions for this mass poisoning.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a single solution that can be applied across Bangladesh and eastern India.  But Scott Fendorf explained what people are trying and briefly explained how these solutions work:


2. Arsenic is a strange toxin.  Its effects on the human body can actually be amplified under certain conditions, like smoking cigarettes.  These are known as synergistic effects, and Allan Smith explained just what this means:


3. Something that we found quite interesting and quite strange is that arsenic doesn’t behave the same way in different animals as it does in humans.  Craig Steinmaus explained why arsenic is so unusual in this regard:


4. Arsenic poisoning isn’t unique to southeast Asia.  In fact, hundreds of millions of people are at risk for arsenic poisoning all over the world.  Craig Steinmaus takes us around the world to the various places where arsenic is a problem, including the United States:


5. As Allan Smith and Craig Steinmaus explained, arsenic exposure is a problem in the United States.  They both explain where it’s occurring and why it’s such a difficult situation to deal with, even here:


Music Playlist
All songs were provided by Chuck Jonkey (  These are the songs used in this episode (Track, Album):

  1. The Master’s Breath, Tibetan Singing Bowls
  2. Ancient Spirit’s Sing, Tibetan Singing Bowls
  3. Alien Mating Ritual, Sci Fi Music
  4. Deep Space, Deep Space
  5. Mystic Quasar, Deep Space
  6. Singing Drums, Jungle Drums
  7. Nepali, Grooves of India
  8. Jungles of Asteroid, Sci Fi Music
  9. Bengali Tribal Song, Tribal India


Scott Fendorf
After graduating from the University of Delaware, Scott began a faculty position in the Soil Science Division at the University of Idaho.  He spent six great years (1993-1998) in Idaho (first as an Assistant and later as an Associate Professor of Soil Chemistry) before coming to Stanford University in January of 1999 where he now runs a program in soil biogeochemistry.  He is interested in the chemical and biological processes that control the fate and movement of elements (ranging from carbon to arsenic to uranium) within soils, sediments, and surface waters.  His research group examines the chemical environments that develop as a result of both biotic and abiotic processes, and they strive to account for the physical complexity and hydrology of natural settings.

Allan Smith
Dr. Smith has been at the forefront of arsenic research for years.  He provided definitive evidence from Argentina and Chile that arsenic in drinking water is a potent cause of human bladder and lung cancer.  He has also showed that with exposure to water containing around 600 µg/L, one in 10 adult cancer deaths may be due to arsenic-caused cancers, the highest environmental cancer risk ever reported.  Allan has also identified a dose-response relationship between arsenic exposure and bladder cell micronuclei, a marker of genetic damage to bladder cells which may relate to cancer risks.  He continues his work on arsenic today as a professor of epidemiology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Craig Steinmaus
After seven years in private practice as an occupational medicine clinician, he is now an Assistant Adjunct Professor in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at UCSF and in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UC Berkeley. He is also a Public Health Medical Officer at the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment of the California Environmental Protection Agency. At UC Berkeley, he is the Associate Director of the Arsenic Health Effects Research Group, and has taught classes in occupational and environmental epidemiology, causal inference, risk assessment, and meta-analysis since 1999.  Dr Steinmaus’ major research interests lies in the health effects of common drinking water and occupational contaminants. He focuses on susceptible populations, including the fetus, children, pregnant women, and those with particular metabolic and genetic characteristics. He has published numerous articles and several book chapters in these areas, and is the Principal Investigator or co-investigator on NIH-funded studies on chemical exposures and cancer and lung disease in Chile, Argentina, Bangladesh, and California.


Miles Traer
Miles Traer began his academic career at UC Berkeley with a double major in Geophysics and Art History.  He is currently a fifth-year PhD student in the Tectonic Geomorphology Lab modeling the evolution of the seafloor.  Miles was first turned on to podcasts in 2007 and quickly became an avid consumer.  Some of his favorites include The BS Report, the StarTalk Radio podcast, In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, The Nerdist, and WTF with Marc Maron.  In addition to his work as a scientist, Miles works as a part-time artist, contributing the art of this website including the portraits found on each interview’s page (drawn by hand).  When he’s not working on science or this podcast, you can generally find him cooking cajun gumbo and listening to blues.

Leslie Chang
Leslie Chang is a recent graduate of Stanford University, where she studied Earth Systems and creative writing. She has been a correspondent for Generation Anthropocene since the podcast’s earliest days, and fully joined the team after graduating in June 2012. In her spare time, she might be found camping, cooking, teaching piano, or enjoying a book with a mug of coffee. She is an avid fan of NPR, sea otters, SNL, free food samples, and anyone who posts interesting articles to Twitter. That could be you.

3 thoughts on “The Largest Mass Poisoning in History

  1. That was a fantastic episode…First, it was fascinating. Second, it had a great tempo that kept me glued to the story the entire time. Third, it was produced very well. Well done Gen Anthro !

  2. Pingback: Uncovering the cause of the largest mass poisoning in history | Ediary Blog

  3. Pingback: Uncovering the cause of the largest mass poisoning in history | Globe Law News

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