Killer Fish Were Poisoned With Pesticides

Tests have revealed that the poisoned fish that killed seven people and made 69 others sick in Siem Reap province last month were contaminated with pesticides.

Ung Phirun, secretary of state for health at the Ministry of Health, said tests show the fish carried high levels of phosphates of a type commonly found in pesticides.

He said it is not certain exactly how those in Siem Reap province became ill and died. But a health team has been sent to the area to warn villagers not to eat fish until further notice.

Reports of illness first surfaced along the Ou Cheak River, about 40 km downstream from Anlong Veng district. Within minutes after eating fish, some fell ill with headaches, vomiting, diarrhea and exhaustion.

Seven of those stricken later died.

There is some evidence that the danger may spread. Ou Eim, penal police chief for Siem Reap province, said eight villagers in the Kralanh and Puok districts were recently poisoned by fish believed to have migrated downstream from Anlong Veng.

None of them died, however, and officials said Wednesday they have received no further reports of illness or death in the districts involved.

Officials at first thought the fish had been contaminated by poison fruit falling into the water. But the tests revealed traces of pesticide in virtually every variety of fish caught for food in the area, Ou Eim said.

Fish are a major source of protein in the Cambodia diet.

Health officials have warned for some time that Cambodia’s use of pesticides represents a public health time bomb.

Farmers increasingly apply chemical fertilizers and pesticides to their crops, and a number of chemicals that have been banned elsewhere in the world are readily available here.

Pesticide use in Cambodia has grown steadily over the past decade.

Studies by the World Health Organization and Oxfam indicate that many farmers cannot read warning labels on the containers and do not wear the proper protective equipment.

Typically, pesticide use does not create immediate health hazards.

But over time, runoff from fields flows into streams and rivers, and fish in those waters can build up toxic levels of chemicals in their bodies, health officials said.

A survey last year by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organ­ization found that 90 percent of Cambodian farmers report falling ill after using pesticides, but continue to use them anyway.

“The pesticides used here tend to be…the most dangerous types’’ as classified by the World Health Organization, Gary Jahn, a pest management specialist at the International Rice Research Institute’s Phnom Penh office, said in that survey.

Also in 1999, the Center for the Study and Development of Cambodian Agri­cul­ture and Ox­fam did a joint study on the pesticide market in Kandal province.

That study found that, in seven districts along the Bassac River, Tonle Sap and the lower Me­kong, the best-selling pesticides were the most dangerous types, and that most people selling them were not aware of how dangerous they are, in part because most warning labels were in foreign languages.

The number of pesticides available has grown over the past few years. In 1994, 30 types were sold; by 1999, that number had grown to 66.


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