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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Dioxin flag raised

Dioxin flag raised

Japanese researchers have discovered dangerous levels of carcinogenic dioxins in

hair and breast-milk samples taken from residents near Phnom Penh's Stung

Meanchey garbage dump.

A young recycle worker sets off through the garbage for another load of scraps, which might earn him a few riel. It's a dangerous place to work - toxic fumes, hospital waste, broken glass, oblivious industrial vehicles.

Analysis of the samples taken in January 1999

showed that people at the dump face serious health risks, prompting a research

team led by Shinsuke Tanabe, a professor of environmental chemistry at Japan's

Ehime University, to return to the site last November to conduct further


Although analysis of the November samples will not be completed

until later this year, Touch Seang Tana, an environmental expert working with

Tanabe, said they were very concerned about the initial results

Dioxin is

a cancer-causing waste product most commonly formed when garbage - especially

that containing plastics - is burned.

Apart from cancer, exposures to

high-levels of dioxin can cause birth defects, damage immune and respiratory

systems, disrupt liver function, and cause skin disorders.

Infants are

particularly at risk. Pregnant women exposed to dioxin pass the toxin through

the placenta into the fetus where it can cause birth defects. Infants exposed to

dioxin in the womb can also suffer learning disabilities and an increased

susceptibility to disease and infection.

But it is nursing infants who

face the highest danger because, after entering the mother, dioxin becomes

concentrated in fat-rich breast milk.

Doctor Beat Richner, Director of

the Kantha Bopha Hospital, said his staff has seen several children from the

Stung Meanchey dump area who were born without eyes and with malformed limbs.

These birth defects are consistent with dioxin exposure, said Richner, but

cautioned that dioxin has not been scientifically proven to be the cause in

those cases.

As the dump trucks roll in with 'fresh' loads of garbage, recycle workers jockey for position. While workers and local residents are aware of and concerned about the health risks, they have few options.

It is the smoke from the burning garbage that is the most

likely source of dioxin contamination in the people of the Stung Meanchey dump,

and it is the recyclers and people who live within 500 meters of the dump who

face the most severe risks dioxin, said Mr Tana.

The November soil

samples were taken from many sites around the dump, as were more hair and breast

milk samples. Due to the volume of samples taken to Japan for analysis, it will

take until the end of the year before the researchers will submit a report on

their findings, said Tana.

If the comprehensive tests show widespread

high levels of dioxin contamination, the researchers will first give the report

to the Cambodian government, he said. The Government will then decide whether to

allow immediate publication of the report in Cambodia, or perhaps give the

information to the public slowly.

"Scientifically we can publish

[abroad], but one thing we know is that sometimes scientific publications can

affect social security," Tana said.

If the Cambodian Government decides

the health risk warrants action, they can turn to the Japanese who are "keen to

donate," he said.

"We are part of Asean now so we have to achieve

pollution and environmental standards," said Tana. "The Japanese want to help

the Cambodian government solve the problem by investing in waste recycling


When contacted by the Post, Heng Nairit, Director of the

Ministry of Environment's Pollution Control Department, said he had not been

informed about a potentially serious dioxin problem at the Stung Meanchey


Every day some 200 trucks arrive at Stung Meanchey loaded with

Phnom Penh's trash. A dusty road lined with recycling businesses - all but

buried under great piles of plastics and metals - leads into the heart of the

dump where acres of stinking refuse rots and smolders.

When trucks

arrive, workers run alongside to make sure they are in good position when the

loads are emptied. As the waste pours from the trucks, crowds of recyclers all

but stand beneath the shower of garbage competing for the choice bits.


the midst of the smells and smoke are food stalls swarming with


The people living in the community are aware of the dangers of

living at the dump. They said the water supply was dangerous and the smoke bad

for their health.

Hol Cheng, 13, was preparing to go back to work when

the Post spoke to him at his family's shack.

He said he would prefer to

be in school but must earn money for his impoverished family.

Cheng said

he went to school for one month and really enjoyed it, but his widowed mother

needed more money for food.

Being the oldest child he had to quit classes

and return to the dump.

"I want to study but I need to help my mother,"

he whispered, saying he earns between 2,000 and 5,000 riels a day picking

through the rubbish.

Cheng's mother said the work is hard. She especially

worries about him when he has to work late at night. As Cheng stared glumly at

the ground his mother described how, a few nights before, a truck crushed one of

Cheng's child colleagues, Ly Runy, while he slept beside the road through the


Ly Rany, 16, had lived with his impoverished grandmother near Stung

Meanchey. He studied until grade 5, but had to drop out of school this year to

earn money to pay rent on his grandmother's house.

Often Rany had to work

throughout the night. Just before dawn on February 21, the exhausted boy fell

asleep on the side of the road and truck rolled over him.

At the entrance

to the dump is a clinic where Net Virak, an instructor and project assistant

with Vulnerable Children Assistance Organization, works with the child

recyclers. He said accidents like the one that killed Rany are all too


He said in 1999 three kids were run over by bulldozers, two were

badly injured and one killed.

Every day he has to clean and bandage

wounds of the young recyclers and he worries a lot about the children who get

stuck by syringe needles which he fears might be infected with HIV.

On a

typical day Virak estimates there are some 160 kids working at the


All sorts of strange things arrive in the garbage trucks -

including aborted human fetuses - but Virak is most concerned about trucks

dumping dangerous chemicals.

Scrap cloth from garment factories arrives

by the truck-load, but sometimes the cloth is soaked in chemicals which burns

and blisters the skin of the recyclers.

Virak said those working in the

dump always complain of breathing difficulties, stinging eyes and sore throats.

Although he didn't know about the dioxin risk he said in general the health of

the people of the dump was very poor.

But while there is money to be

earned, people will risk the dangers.

Tes Roeun, 45, from Kandal said she

came to Phnom Penh to work for the PSBK Development Co. Ltd. - the company that

trucks Phnom Penh's garbage to the dump - but found she could make more money as

a recycler.

Roeun toils all day at the dump gathering discarded bags,

scrap aluminum, plastics and iron. "These things become the food to feed my

children and to fill up my stomach," she said.

Ouk Sam Oun, 54, from Prey

Veng province became a recycler in 1990 after failed rice crops forced her to

sell her little farm.

"Living here is better than living in the country

with no land," she said, as smoke from the rubbish fires blew across her

plastic-roofed shack which is home to three families.

"During the dry

season there is always smoke," she said, "and the smell of the burning plastic

makes me feel dizzy, causes headaches and hurts my lungs."

When the smoke

becomes intolerable, the children run from their homes at Prek Tal to escape the

poisonous clouds, said Oun. Those too young to flee are placed under mosquito

nets by their parents in a futile effort to protect them



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