An international scientific conference is under way in Siem Reap city on arsenic contamination of groundwater in Asia, a problem, health experts say, that is prevalent in Cambodia and a serious health concern in parts of the country.
In Kandal province alone around 100,000 people are at risk of developing health problems caused by consuming groundwater with high levels of arsenic, Andrew Shantz, laboratory manager of the NGO Resource Development Institute, said Monday.
Cambodians living along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers and using groundwater wells for drinking water are most at risk, Shantz said, adding that certain wells contain the carcinogen. “It is a high risk [in some areas], so many people are affected by it,” he said.
Health problems due to chronic arsenic poisoning by drinking wat-er occur after five to seven years and include skin changes, followed by hardening of the skin on hands and feet, and eventually the development of cancers, Shantz said. He added that in poor communities malnourished people might start developing symptoms after three years.
RDI has conducted research throughout Kandal, Kampot and Kompong Cham provinces and found high levels of arsenic in nu-merous communities, and sometimes clear effects of poisoning, Shantz said. He cited the example of a village in Kompong Thom commune, Kandal province, where people showed skin ailments and several died. One man had to have his leg amputated.
RDI was conducting an awareness program in high-risk areas to prevent people from using contaminated wells and advising them to use very shallow wells or do rainwater harvesting instead, Shantz said, adding that reliable household technology to treat the water was not yet available here.
The three-day Chapman Confer-ence of the American Geophysical Union in Siem Reap was organized locally by RDI and the Wat-er and Sanitation Program and started Wednesday, WSP Country Director Jan-Willem Rosenboom said.
Rosenboom said it was difficult to predict how many people actually consume contaminated water because of seasonal variations in drinking water sources, but added health effects would be very localized. “The number of people [suffering adverse effects] is unlikely to be very large,” he added.
Biological contamination was a more urgent health concern for donors and the government, Ro-senboom said, adding that around 11,000 people died from diarrhea alone in Cambodia last year.
Chea Samnang, director of the Rural Healthcare Department of the Ministry of Rural Develop-ment, said the department tested for arsenic in many areas and provided alternate sources of drink-ing water if it was found, such as rainwater tanks and ceramic water filters.
“The problem is not bad compared to countries like Bangla-desh…. People can easily replace water sources,” he said, referring to local villagers.
Arsenic is carried from the Him-alayas in river sediments and dissolves into groundwater due to the local hydrology, Shantz said.