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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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