Researchers from Japan's Ehime University examine an individual during testing for arsenic poisoning last month.
pproximately one-third of rural villagers recently tested by researchers from Japan's
Ehime University have been found to have "highly suspicious" physical symptoms
of chronic arsenic poisoning, or arsenicosis.
The Dec 28-29 testing of 42 villagers in a series of undisclosed locations outside
Phnom Penh by Dr. Shinsuke Tanabe of Ehime University's Center for Marine Environmental
Studies, is the first clinical study of the human health impacts of arsenic contamination
of Cambodian groundwater
The study was prompted by the Sep 2000 release of preliminary results of a World
Health Organization (WHO) sponsored survey of Cambodia's water quality. The survey
revealed traces of "relatively high levels" of arsenic in samples of groundwater
taken from the provinces of Prey Veng, Kandal, Battambang and Kratie.
Arsenicosis manifests itself after eight to 15 years of long-term consumption of
arsenic-laced water through symptoms that are often mistaken for leprosy: abnormal
black-brown pigmentation of the skin, thickening of the skin on palms and soles,
gangrene in the lower extremities and skin cancer.
Tanabe's research appears to contradict assertions made by WHO personnel in Sep that
clinical signs of arsenicosis in Cambodia were neither noticed nor expected.
In two days of testing that included sample clippings of villagers' hair and finger
and toenails as well as examination of individual's hands and feet, Dr. Tanabe and
his four-member team of researchers found repeated instances of black-brown pigmentation
of the skin and itchy "possibly pre-cancerous lesions" associated with
Groundwater samples from the wells which the villagers took their water from were
Those individuals whose skin showed conditions that indicated the possible effects
of arsenicosis had the suspicious skin surface photographed and its details recorded
for later cross-referencing with the individual's hair and nail samples in Japan.
While emphasizing that he was not a physician and was not presuming to diagnosis
the exact nature of the suspicious skin markings his team documented, Dr. Tanabe
was obviously shaken by the findings and expressed frustration that his was the first
clinical tests to be done since the arsenic problem was publicized in September.
"The United Nations Environment Program should be getting involved with this,"
Tanabe told the Post while taking a short break from his inspection of the constant
stream of villagers coming to give samples in return for a stipend of between 5000-10000
riel each. "Maybe [their inaction] is due to a lack of funding."
According to Tanabe, the results of his team's research would be released at a workshop
in June or July of this year at which he hoped to coordinate an action plan to assist
"We need to identify which wells have high or low arsenic levels in order to
give people a choice [of water sources]," Tanabe said of the hoped-for results
of his findings. "It's also important to get funding from international organizations
to address this problem properly."
The potential tragedy of Cambodia's arsenic poisoning problem was best illustrated
by the appearance of a family of five ranging in ages from eighteen months of age
to 32 years. Each one of the family members exhibited dry, itching patches of what
Tanabe described as "potentially pre-cancerous lesions" on their arms,
legs and buttocks.
The testing also had its light moments, however, such as a twelve year old boy with
suspicious black markings on his feet that miraculously disappeared after a quick
scrubbing in the bathroom.
However, Tanabe's presumption that the conditions he's noted are possibly arsenicosis
has been criticized by WHO-Cambodia Representative Dr. Bill Pigott, who said he was
"very concerned" by what he perceived as the uninformed and premature nature
of Tanabe's diagnoses.
"I would want to say quite strongly that such statements [by Dr. Tanabe] should
not be made until suspicions are confirmed by experts and the receipt of the test
results," Pigott said. "People should not be alarmed by statements made
by people who don't have the competence and training to make them."
Pigott's concern was echoed by Ministry of Rural Development Secretary of State Ly
Thuch, who personally initiated the WHO-sponsored water survey that discovered the
arsenic problem after similar surveys uncovered large-scale arsenic poisoning in
"My main concern is that any information regarding water quality be very carefully
communicated to those communities who may be affected... it is very easy to cause
panic concerning poisonings or toxins in the environment," Thuch wrote in a
faxed message to the Post. "We fully support dissemination of information about
these issues to the public, but hope that the media and scientific groups will work
with the Government to do so in a careful and coordinated manner that truly benefits
the people of Cambodia."