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[DHAKA] Bangladeshi medical and legal experts have expressed frustration over the rejection of a lawsuit worth millions of pounds in compensation to victims of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh.

The House of Lords, the upper house of Britain's parliament, this week (5 July) dismissed a case brought by Binod Sutradhar against the British Geological Survey (BGS). Sutradhar claimed the BGS was negligent in not testing for arsenic during a water evaluation in Bangladesh (see Bangladeshi villagers to sue over arsenic poisoning).

Sutradhar, from the Brahmanbaria district east of Dhaka, suffers from arsenic poisoning after he drank water from tube-wells dug by international aid agencies in the 1990s.

In 1991 the BGS carried out a pilot research study into the chemistry of groundwater in central and northeast Bangladesh. At the time, there was no evidence that arsenic was present in water-soluble form, so the teams did not test for it. 

But many feel that the BGS is responsible because although they saw that there was massive use of the tube-well water for drinking, they did not use the technology they had to determine whether this water was safe, says Shahdeen Malik, a member of Sutradhar's legal counsel.

Mahmudur Rahman, coordinator of Dhaka Community Hospital Trust and member of the National Arsenic Expert Committee, said that the BGS team has knowledgeable people who cannot deny responsibility.

"Why did the BGS not determine water quality despite arsenic testing guidelines set by the World Health Organization?" he asks.

Millions of people continue to suffer from drinking water that contains dangerously high levels of arsenic. It causes cancer of the skin, bladder, lungs and kidneys, killing 270,000 a year in Bangladesh.

The House of Lords upheld an earlier ruling by the UK Court of Appeal that the allegation, which could have cost British taxpayers millions of pounds, was "hopeless".

Sutradhar could not be reached for comment, but Malik told SciDev.Net that the House of Lords' decision means that nobody is responsible for the sufferings of millions of people. "This is really unfortunate," he said.

The rejection of the lawsuit has eliminated the last ray of hope for arsenic victims counting how many days they have left to live, according to Quazi Quamruzzaman, chair of the Dhaka Community Hospital.

"We are frustrated at the outcome of the case," he said.

The BGS argued that its report was a minor survey and that the local authorities responsible should have been aware that it did not determine whether the water was safe to drink.

Alan Thorpe, chief executive of the UK Natural Environment Research Council, BGS's parent organisation, said that the ruling confirms that "scientists cannot be held responsible for the research they decide not to do".