KHUT Ngan Cheur admits that she is afraid of her own skin. Gingerly, as if to prove that she has cause for worry, she displays the gnarled surface of her palms and feet, which are encrusted with yellow and black sores.
Along with about 260 other residents of Preak Russey village, located in Kandal province’s Koh Thom district, the 51-year-old woman is suffering from the prolonged effects of arsenic poisoning, which earlier this year led to the death of her brother and nephew.
Her brother, Khut Chhang, 52, died in February, and the man’s 27-year-old son, Chhang Vorn, died in March, she said. Prior to their deaths, each man had undergone a leg amputation after suffering cancerous lesions and gangrene.
“Before my brother died he was in a lot of pain. There were extremely itchy sores on his palms, legs and torso. He was vomiting blood, suffering from diarrhoea and could not walk or eat,” she said.
According to figures released last month by the Department of Water Supply at the Ministry of Rural Development, about 150,000 people living along the Mekong and Bassac rivers are consuming arsenic-contaminated drinking water for at least part of the year.
Mao Saray, director of the department, said arsenic could lead to cancer of “the lungs, bladder and skin in particular”.
“After prolonged exposure – typically three to 10 years – skin lesions can develop which can lead to gangrene, and in severe cases amputations are necessary,” he said.
Khut Ngan Cheur said she first heard of arsenic poisoning – also known as arsenicosis – in 2006, when wells in her village were tested.
“At first we did not know exactly what the disease was, and we did not care too much because many people in our village have the same illness,” she said. “But we became very frightened when my relatives died.”
Andrew Shantz, laboratory and research director for Resource Development International Cambodia, said that despite progress in the monitoring of arsenic poisoning, there were no accurate estimates about the number of arsenic-related deaths in Cambodia.
“Cancers that result from arsenic exposure and cancers that result from other causes are difficult to distinguish,” he said.
However, he said that the two deaths in Preak Russey were “almost certainly the result of prolonged exposure to arsenic-contaminated groundwater”.
“Arsenicosis patients have been found in at least four villages in Cambodia – Preak Russey being by far the most severely impacted,” he said.
General malnutrition and exposure to parasites put villagers in Preak Russey at an enhanced risk, he said.
Chhorn Sovorn, deputy village chief of Preak Russey village, said that about 80 of the community’s 100 wells were found to contain arsenic levels that were 40 to 50 times the limit considered safe by the World Health Organisation, and eight to 10 times the limit considered safe by the Ministry of Rural Development.
“Before 2006, all the villagers used well water for drinking, bathing and cooking rice, but after the wells were tested and found to be high in arsenic, we stopped using them,” he said.
However, Meuk Nhil, a 54-year-old farmer suffering from arsenicosis, said he still occasionally drew drinking water from his contaminated well.
“I have no money to buy running water like other people. I collect rainwater, but when that runs out, I drink water from my well,” he said.