Residents of 1,600 villages in six provinces and Phnom Penh have been advised not to drink from thousands of water wells that authorities say are highly contaminated with arsenic, officials said.
The high-risk areas near the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers are in Kandal, Kompong Cham, Kompong Chhnang, Kompong Thom, Kratie and Prey Veng provinces, as well as in Phnom Penh, said Mao Saray, director of the Ministry of Rural Development’s rural water supply department. The affected villages are home to more than two million people. The Phnom Penh villages are located on the outskirts of the capital.
Health Ministry officials visited several of the villages in Kandal Saturday after receiving reports that villagers were suffering from severe skin problems. Water tests from 3,000 wells in 200 villages have revealed arsenic levels that exceed the limit, Mao Saray said. The wells have been marked to indicate that villagers should not drink from them, he added. Authorities have known for years that many of Cambodia’s deeply dug wells contain high levels of arsenic, and in the past have daubed red paint on wells with dangerously high levels.
Heng Taikry, secretary of state for the Ministry of Health, said he saw 20 villagers whose skin was cracked and appeared diseased when he visited a village in Kandal’s Koh Thom district Saturday. They have been offered free treatment at Calmette Hospital, Heng Taikry added. He said villagers in high-risk areas are encouraged to dig new, shallower wells to use for drinking water.
Long-term arsenic exposure most often manifests itself as skin diseases, and can lead to cancer.
The Health Ministry has no laboratory to test for arsenic poisoning in humans, though several ministries are able to test for water quality, Heng Taikry said.
Hair and nail samples collected from villagers with skin problems will be sent to a lab in India and tested, Heng Taikry added. “In Cambodia, we have no experience providing arsenic treatment,” he said.
Arsenic contamination in deep groundwater is an “ancient problem,” said Michael O’Leary, World Health Organization country representative. O’Leary said arsenic is not present in Cambodian river water today. The chemical was carried by rivers from the Himalayas millennia ago, O’Leary said, so it can also be present in groundwater in areas where rivers used to be. O’Leary added that there is no risk using water with high levels of arsenic to wash dishes and clothing or to irrigate fields.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Tomei)