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Applying science to snails to save humans


PCD

Toxic chemicals used by farmers to protect their crops are seeping into Cambodia’s rivers and lakes and threatening the wildlife in the water as well as the humans who eat them, say NGOs. Young chemists at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) are working to figure out what exactly is going on.

According to 2009 research from the World Wide Foundation (WWF), an NGO working to protect the endangered dolphin population in Kratie province, the drop in the number of dolphins is because they eat fish that have themselves been contaminated by other wildlife that contains high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls(PCDs). PCD is a remnant of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DTT, a strong insecticide that many farmers spray on their crops to avoid destruction from insects. Once released into soil and water, PCD lasts for a long time, and the WWF has hypothesised that it is affecting Kratie province’s dolphins.

More recently, the WWF has cooperated with senior students at RUPP’s department of chemistry to do further research in Choeung Ek Lake and discovered that the sediment contained high levels of PCD. Naturally, the mussels and bivalves that eat the sediment were also contaminated with PCD.

In January 2010, an extension of the project was funded by the Swedish government through Uppsala University (ISP/IPICS). The students at RUPP set out to do research on a project called “Quantity of PCD inside the bivalve and mussel”. If they found high levels, the project would go on to investigate how humans are impacted, since many Cambodian’s eat shellfish. The impact of PCD is especially dangerous for women who are breastfeeding. PCD is also thought to increase people’s risk of certain types of cancer.

“I believe that if PCD is really building up in people, it probably causes a kind of cancer in humanity, but depends on duration,” said Heng Savoeun, the superviser of the project.

The project plans to wrap up this year. Six months will be spent determining the amount of PCD in the mussels and bivalves, and the next six months will be spent on determining the impact on humans.

“When the project is finished, we have to summarise our findings. If the results match our hypothesis, that humans are being negatively affected, we can send a message to consumers that these things are harmful to your health. But if the result is negative, that will be a good thing for mussel and bivalve lovers,” said Ho Seanghuoy, a senior student at the department of chemistry, a researcher on the project.

Although the results have yet to come back, there is still concern from many consumers.

“I love to eat bivalves and mussels, and after acknowledging this, I am so afraid that if [they are contaminated], then I must be in trouble,” said Roth Chenda, a student from Pannasastra University of Cambodia.

The department of chemistry has done several projects to find the impact of chemical substances and other waste products on the environment.

“We really hope the government or other institutions support our research,” said Heng Savoeun. “We can do research to improve our society and benefit citizens across the country, but only as much as our funding allows,” he explained.

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