Chorn Sovannary and her family in Kean Svay village, Kandal province, rely on two wells – one that is clean and one that is contaminated.
The late Mickey Sampson and RDIC
Research Development International Cambodia (RDIC), founded by the late Mickey Sampson, is the most active group educating and providing Cambodians with clean, safe water. Sampson combined his chemistry knowledge - he has a PhD - with practical wisdom to achieve real results. Sampson's work involved testing wells throughout Cambodia, educating villagers about the dangers of contaminated water and then working to provide families with an alternative source of safe water. RDIC developed a cheap surface water filtration system, using clay and finely ground rice hulls. The filters can be made cheaply and sold for US$10 a unit. "If you look at what Mickey Sampson did for Cambodia, it's such a loss. In terms of replacing Mickey you know with his innovation, ideas and full on approach to life it's going to be impossible," Jan Rosenboom said. Sampson died unexpectedly of a heart attack on March 19 this year. A memorial to commemorate Mickey Sampson's life and work was held at an RDIC site 20 kilometres south of Phnom Penh in Kandal province on March 28.
CAMBODIA is beginning to feel the effects of what the World Health Organisation describes as the "largest mass poisoning in history", and if more is not done soon, then over 100,000 people in Kandal province alone could be at risk.
It has been nine years since arsenic was found to be contaminating the nation's groundwater, and knowledge of the chemical element's dangers is still not widespread.
"The problem in Cambodia is only starting to manifest itself," Scott Fendorf, chair of the Stanford University Environmental Earth System Science Department, told the Post last week. "It's a sleeping giant."
Drinking contaminated water with arsenic levels at 500 parts per billion - similar to levels in Kandal province - has the same ability to cause cancer as smoking one packet of cigarettes per day, said Allan Smith, professor of epidemiology at the University of California Berkeley.
The potential threat of arsenic poisoning from groundwater first came to the world's attention in the 1990s when Bangladesh and India started to see the medical repercussions of drinking contaminated water.
The effects of prolonged exposure to arsenic - arsenocosis - are irreversible and can cause melanomas, skin lesions, gangrene, black foot disease and cardiovascular disease. In Bangladesh alone, the WHO estimates that up to 80 million people suffer from arsenocosis.
Smith says Cambodia should expect a rise in instances of cancer and heart disease as the effects of prolonged arsenic exposure begin to trickle into the Kingdom's already overstretched health system.
World experts in Siem Reap
The world's leading scientists gathered in Siem Reap last week at the "AGU Chapman Conference on Arsenic in Groundwater of Southern Asia" to share their knowledge of arsenic, how it works and what to do about it.
Arsenic originates high in the Himalayan mountain ranges as sulphide minerals, which over time become exposed, causing the arsenic to switch into iron oxide particles that easily bind to soil sediments.
The sediments then begin to wash down the big river basins, where they are then transported to the headwaters of the Mekong and eventually make their way into the low-lying regions of the Mekong Delta near Phnom Penh.
The warm tropical environment combined with the right anaerobic conditions cause the arsenic to dissolve into the water system.
"The problem has been here all the time, but the reason people are starting to get poisoned is that they have started to drink the groundwater ... that's where the problem lies," Fendorf said.
WHO has set its acceptable arsenic water levels at 10 parts per billion (ppb), and in Cambodia the acceptable level set by the Ministry of Rural Development is 50 ppb.
Seven of Cambodia's provinces contain contaminated groundwater, but Kandal province is the worst, suffering from "uniformed contamination of the aquifer ... and consistent levels between 300 and 1,000 ppb," Fendorf said.
In Prekrussey village, Kandal province, RDIC scientists found wells with levels at 3,000 ppb.
RDIC scientists said that people in Prekrussey village, are developing signs of rapid arsenicosis in only the first three years after exposure.
In a 2008 UNICEF arsenic evaluation report, 38 percent of tube wells in the seven arsenic-affected provinces were found to be contaminated with arsenic levels above 50 ppb, impacting 136,000 Cambodians.
...chronic exposure takes minimum of 8-10 years, maybe 15.... it's a sleeping giant. it sneaks up on people.
But RDIC scientists say this figure is grossly underestimated.
An independent study conducted by RDIC and Dartmouth College last year determined that there were 100,000 Cambodians at risk in Kandal province alone, saying that the total at risk could be as high as 2 million people in 10 provinces.
Dr Mao Saray, director of the secretariat for arsenic at the Ministry of Rural Development, said the ministry's policy is to provide safe water to all villagers by 2025.
But Jan Willem Rosenboom, Cambodian team leader of the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Program, said that the task of providing clean water to Cambodians by 2025 would be "a very difficult challenge".
"There are two main constraints that will make providing clean water difficult: a lack of national strategy and a lack of funds," said Hilda Winarta, project officer for water and environmental sanitation at UNICEF.
Compared to Bangladesh, though, Cambodia is quite well-situated to deal with the arsenic threat.
Bangladesh moved to ground water a lot earlier than Cambodia, and UNICEF estimates that there are 11 million wells in Bangladesh compared
to Cambodia's 16,000.
In Bangladesh, 97 percent of the population drink from groundwater, while in Cambodia the preference is still surface water.
"Our family gathers water from the lake and boils it.... We use the well water for cooking and cleaning. It tastes sour and you don't feel well,"
said Chorn Sovannary, a resident of Kean Svay village in Kandal province.
"We know that if you drink the arsenic water you will get sick," he said.
But Stanford's Fendorf sees room for hope.
"Cambodia is in a place where they can really benefit ... they can say, ‘We know what the problem is, we've seen what happened in Bangladesh and let's not go that way'. We have that option in Cambodia," Fendorf said.
Fendorf says that because the health consequences have advanced much further in Bangladesh, they are taking it very seriously.
"Part of the problem is the chronic exposure takes a minimum of eight to 10 years, maybe 15.... It's a sleeping giant. It sneaks up on people," Fendorf said.
For Cambodia, scientists agree that on the surface the solution seems simple. The problem stems from ground water, so stop drinking ground water, they say.
"Absolutely, if you have a well that is infected with arsenic, your strategy of choice would be avoidance rather than treatment ... source substitution rather than source treatment," Rosenboom said.
"There is, however, still a focus within places like Oxfam and UNICEF, on using ground water," Rosenboom said.
Marc Hall agreed that the prior mandates of organisations such as UNICEF have compounded the problem.
"Traditionally, well water was considered OK, the water looks fine and can provide for a whole village," Marc Hall said.
"What we've seen is that in the last 10 years in Cambodia, arsenic has been quite well documented in the literature. It has just not been perceived at a well drilling level.... If you go out and ask the local well driller, they will have no idea about the problem," Fendorf said.
See Story In Photo: Arsenic threatens 100,000 in Kandal