sihanoukville – Just shy of the tourism high season, O’Chheuteal beach was already crawling with tourists both foreign and Cambodian on a recent morning, many of them out for a stroll along the white sands.
“It’s one of the better beaches around,” said Scottish tourist Karen McGuigen as she walked along the popular beach.
But strollers would be wise to watch where they step on O’Chheuteal as they contemplate the azure water and distant tree-lined islands.
Medical waste, including syringes and hypodermic needles, is a common sight strewn along sections of the beach, and what was found during a recent visit was not exceptional.
In all, a single casual search turned up four syringes, three syringe plungers, one needle, three bottles for injectable drugs and an intravenous drip on O’Chheuteal, and another drug bottle and an IV drip bottle in a tidal pool at the edge of nearby Victory Beach.
Regular garbage clogging the shoreline included Styrofoam containers, plastic straws, mismatched footwear, and the occasional waterlogged photo album or a half-burnt candle.
Officials in Sihanoukville admit that there is a problem with trash on the tourist town’s beaches, but none were neither aware of medical waste nor was there a consensus regarding its source.
“There is no dumping along the beach,” Municipal Environment Department Director Hem Saroeun said. “I can say that, if compared to beaches in neighboring countries, ours are just as good.”
Dr Ho Suthy, the director of the Sihanoukville Referral Hospital, said that medical waste generated by the hospital could never reach the beaches because it is destroyed on site.
The hospital has special kilns in which to burn needles and infectious waste, and other biological waste is buried in the hospital compound, he said.
Private medical clinics in Sihanoukville are required to send their waste and sharp instruments to the hospital for destruction, so they are not likely the source of the waste being washed up on the beach, said Dr Lim Kim Hour, director of Sihanoukville’s CT Clinic.
Both Lim Kim Hour and Ho Suthy speculated that the syringes and intravenous equipment might have been dumped improperly by nurses making house calls to treat patients. “They can practice as nurses at home, but there is not much regulation,” Lim Kim Hour said.
Municipal Health Department Director Kem Saron said that Sihanoukville’s medical waste was being properly handled and suggested that the culprits might be foreign and local drugs users. “Maybe drug addicts used [syringes] and threw them there,” he said.
But the array of waste found on the beach goes far beyond recreational drug users, and municipal penal police bureau chief Kol Phally said that there have never been any complaints about drug users on the beaches.
Getting people to properly get rid of their trash is a huge challenge, said Ith Chanda, the Sihanoukville deputy manager for the waste management firm Cintri. “They just throw garbage in the sewers.”
Trash sometimes ends up in the water or on the beach, he said. “Workers have seen and collected a few syringes and medical waste left on the beach, but we don’t know where they came from.”
Though unaware of medical refuse surfacing on the beaches, Sihanoukville Municipal Governor Say Hak did acknowledge the need to keep the shoreline cleaner.
His solution for solving the trash issue is development of the coast, which has recently meant the leasing of beaches to private companies.
“There is some ugliness along the beaches; that is why we want to improve them by bringing development,” Say Hak said. “Sihanoukville is like a beautiful girl, so we need cosmetics to put on her face,” he said.
Michael O’Leary, country representative for the World Health Organization, said the he was unaware of any problem with medical waste on Cambodian shores or those of neighboring Vietnam and Thailand.
If one was unfortunate to come in contact with a syringe needle lying on a beach, O’Leary said the first concern should be tetanus-a potentially fatal bacterial infection.
The chance of catching other diseases from a discarded needle is relatively slim because viruses and bacteria tend to die quickly when outside the body, though there is no way to be certain, he said.
“It’s stuff to avoid, that’s for sure,” O’Leary said.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)