No abnormal levels of mercury have been detected in water supplies near a suspected toxic waste dump in Sihanoukville, and a Japanese scientist said the site does not pose any immediate health threats.
“People living around the site shouldn’t be so worried about acute toxicity,” said Mineshi Sakamoto of the National Institute for Minamata Disease in Japan, who tested a number of water wells, including one 300 meters downhill from the site.
Sakamoto, whose tests also showed no mercury vapor in the air, said Sunday that he did not doubt that a sample analyzed in Singapore showed an extremely high mercury content of 675 parts per million. But he said that preliminary result might not be representative of the waste as a whole and that more data would be needed to determine toxicity and whether port workers got sick because of the waste.
Samples now are being tested in Thailand and Japan. Taiwan environmental authorities told Agence France-Presse on Saturday that they also would analyze the waste.
The mercury-tainted waste, however, should continue to be removed by soldiers as soon as possible to prevent it from eventually seeping into food and water supplies and causing possible long-term health effects, Sakamoto said. In the meantime, children, scavengers and animals should be kept away from the site, he said.
“What we know today is not a major disaster,” said World Health Organization representative Georg Petersen, who accompanied Sakamoto to Sihanoukville over the weekend with government health officials. “It’s a serious problem that must be solved properly.”
Mam Bunheng, secretary of state for Health, said he felt reassured by Sakamoto’s findings.
One port worker died and five others were hospitalized after cleaning the ship that transported the waste from Taiwan to Cambodia. A number of villagers near the site also have complained of being sick. But no direct links have yet been made between the illnesses and the waste.
Perhaps most reassuring is that four water wells near the dump did not have detectable levels of mercury. In other words, mercury levels were below 0.05 parts per million, Sakamoto said.
That did not surprise Sakamoto, who said that there had not been enough time or enough rain for the waste to seep into and contaminate ground water.
It will be a few days, Sakamoto said, before more conclusive results are known from samples taken from the site and also from the blood, urine and hair of nine port workers who complained of sickness after handling the waste. Sakamoto also took samples from soldiers involved in the waste-removal operation.
Petersen said symptoms such as tremors and intense stomach pains experienced by the 30-year-old port worker who died are consistent with acute poisoning, but he cautioned there is “no proof yet” his death was a result of working with the waste.
“The problem now is that everyone in Sihanoukville complains they are sick,” Petersen said. “But that is normal in a situation like this.”
The two doubted that cleaning the trucks used to transport the waste could contaminate water supplies, even if the cleaning were done near reservoirs, because of the relatively small amount of waste likely to be washed off.
But Sakamoto said the rubble clearly needs to be removed from its site roughly 14 km north of Sihanoukville center because it could pose long-term health risks if the waste were to get into the food and water chain. That most likely would occur during the next rainy season.
Petersen said that workers involved in removing the waste need to wear protective clothing such as long sleeves, masks and gloves, but that the big respirators and plastic suits being used at first are impractical in the heat.
Many soldiers have changed to surgical masks to cover their faces, Petersen said, but he acknowledged that some workers had been seen over the weekend without protective clothing. Sakamoto said some had complained about dizziness, but they didn’t show poisoning symptoms.