bittrang village area, Sihanoukville province – When soldiers removed mercury-tainted waste near Sihanoukville in late December, Ti Ong says she was hired to wash their clothing in a nearby stream.
Shortly afterwards, her 1-year-old child died, after suffering from bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. Today, she fears she may have caused the death by handling toxic waste.
“She was afraid she may have contaminated her child from her breast milk,” said Mak Sithirith, a member of an NGO task force investigating health complaints.
Two months after the dumping of industrial waste outside Sihanoukville, health concerns still shake this 40-family village 300 meters or so from the dump site.
All told, six people in the area have died, including four villagers within days of each other two weeks ago. Many other villagers claim they suffer from headaches, stomach pains and diarrhea as never before.
In a country with a high mortality rate, activists are quick to stress they don’t know if the deaths, which included a seemingly healthy 23-year-old man, are caused by the waste. One victim, for example, was 97 years old.
But they are concerned that adequate measures still have not been taken to protect the villagers’ health. “It is of concern that local villagers were asked to wash the protective clothing of the clean-up force in the local river,” said Russell Peterson, representative of The NGO Forum on Cambodia.
In addition, villagers are using a water well less than 150 meters from the dump site, and the waste site itself is cordoned off only by a wooden fence that allows easy access to both animals and people.
“We’re not saying this [the deaths] is a cause of the toxic waste,” said Mak Sithirith, environment network coordinator for The NGO Forum. “But an investigation should be carried out.” He added that the group wants to cooperate with the government on such issues.
A Ministry of Health official said Monday that the government is concerned about villagers’ health, but so far has no evidence directly linking the deaths to the toxic waste.
“We have sent blood samples from a number of the people to laboratories in France and Japan,” said Mam Bun Heng, secretary of state of health. “The results have shown that no one got killed by the waste. They died because of other diseases.”
But Mam Bun Heng said the Ministry is continuing to work with Medecins sans Frontieres to monitor health conditions near the waste site.
One port worker died and five were hospitalized soon after handling the waste in December. In addition, many villagers who had scavenged the dump site complained of illness, and a 16-year-old villager died after sleeping on the bags that had contained the waste.
After a mission in January to Sihanoukville, an MSF team concluded that the waste “very likely” posed health risks, but said the deaths of the port worker and teen-age villager likely were not caused by mercury poisoning.
MSF now is doing a follow-up investigation and also is distributing medicine to sick villagers. The MSF representative conducting the study said Tuesday that she could not talk about the findings yet.
Georg Petersen, country representative of the World Health Organization, said last week that a groundwater assessment by an independent expert would be conducted. Tests also are being done to determine if there were any other toxins, such as cancer-causing dioxin, in the waste.
Although a sawmill camp near the toxic waste dump was closed and its residents relocated, people living in Bittrang village stayed and have continued using nearby water sources.
“I did not leave the village because I have nowhere to go,” said 29-year-old Uk Sopheap, who bore marks on her forehead from treating a headache using a traditional method called coining. “Here I have a house, cattle and rice fields. If I left, what could I do to feed my children?”
On a recent visit, the water used by villagers did not look clean and many residents reported feeling sick.
A 67-year-old male and 97-year-old female, who residents said both used water from the stream, died Jan 30. A few days later, 39-year-old Nob Eaun died, then 23-year-old Chea Than.
While it is understandable that a 97-year-old would die, NGO workers were told Chea Than was a healthy timber supplier who crossed the dump site every day and died after running a fever for three days, vomiting and bleeding from the nose.
“I am very worried about the children because many of them had played with the stuff,” said Sam Thai, a 49-year-old motorcycle taxi driver who lives in the village.
Nineteen-year-old Srey Neang said her youngest brother even took a piece from the waste site and licked it.
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