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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Arsenic poisoning suspected by testing

Arsenic poisoning suspected by testing

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arsen.jpg

Researchers from Japan's Ehime University examine an individual during testing for arsenic poisoning last month.

A

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

arsenicosis.

Groundwater samples from the wells which the villagers took their water from were

also taken.

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

affected villagers.

"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

Bangladesh.

"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."

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