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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tracing the toxin: rumors, fear and puffer fish

Tracing the toxin: rumors, fear and puffer fish

There are currently three main theories regarding the source of the Srey Snom mass

poisoning.

Pesticides

On July 7 the Ministry of Health released the results of toxicological analyses

of samples of both water from the Strung Sreng River and the contents of a suspected

bottle of pesticide labeled "Golden Land" found floating in the Stung Sreng

river in Srey Snom district.

The MOH reports the presence of "organophosphate or carbamate pesticides"

in both samples, but does not detail in what concentrations.

However, Srey Snom district residents insist that pesticide use in the area is minimal.

"There is very little pesticide use in this area," Srey Nom Second District

Governor Touch Sim said. "Pesticides are useful for growing vegetables, but

in this district people mostly just grow rice and catch fish."

Touch Seang Tana, a consultant at the Ministry of Fisheries in Phnom Penh, is also

skeptical about the role that pesticides might play in the poisonings.

"The suspicions about pesticides [being responsible for the poisonings] are

not logical," Tana said. "If the fish is still alive when it's caught,

any pesticide residue it might contain would be in the parts per billion and not

strong enough to affect people."

Ta Mok's Revenge

According to Carere's Sakun, the expanding scope of the river poisoning is prompting

growing popular credence for the rumor that the toxicity is linked to chemical warfare

tactics practiced by the Khmer Rouge to forestall RCAF dry season offensives against

Anlong Veng in the early nineties.

"A Khmer Rouge defector in the [Srey Snom] area has said that the poison is

left over from Ta Mok's attempts to kill RCAF troops by poisoning ponds on the front

lines near Anlong Veng," Sakun said. "The defector said that Ta Mok had

perfected a mixture of poison that would not kill fish but would kill people."

A possible Khmer Rouge connection to the Srey Snom poisoning was also raised in a

July 24 report on the incident by CEDAC, an agricultural NGO.

An unnamed Srey Snom district official is quoted in the CEDAC report as saying that

following the factional fighting of July 1997, Anlong Veng's Khmer Rouge defenders

were supplied with pesticides intended "...to poison the soldiers who were under

the command of Hun Sen".

The official said that KR forces instead abandoned the chemicals in the forest after

unsuccessful attempts to sell the chemicals to Thai traders.

Srey Snom Deputy Governor Touch Sim is clearly disturbed by the implications of the

linkage of the poisoning of the Stung Sreng river with alleged KR chemical warfare.

Sim limited his comment on the issue to saying only that "...speculation about

this matter might affect social and political stability".

Attack of the Puffer Fish

A WHO environmental specialist who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity

said preliminary analysis of the fish flesh at WHO labs in Japan suggested a far

less sinister source of the poisoning.

"The fish samples being analyzed appear to belong to a species of naturally

toxic "puffer fish", similar to the famous fugu fish eaten in Japan,"

the source explained.

An independent American-based toxicologist consulted by the Post expressed skepticism

at the WHO findings, pointing out that Srey Snom residents had never before reported

poisonings connected to an indigenous fish species.

"Why would an epidemic of poisonings happen very suddenly and with no history

of periodic poisoning?" the toxicologist told the Post by email. "I think

that traditional oral history in the villages would be pretty accurate as to when

or whether these fish may become naturally toxic."

Not necessarily, say Touch Seang Tana, a consultant at the Ministry of Fisheries

in Phnom Penh.

Tana notes that a similar case of fish-related poison deaths was documented by French

Protectorate authorities in 1958 in Stung Treng.

According to Tana, French authorities determined that two sub-species of dtrei Kampot,

the highly toxic tidal puffer fish and the spotted green puffer fish migrated downstream

from their normal upper river environment due to serious flooding.

CARERE's Sokun says the collapse of an Anlong Veng dike on May 23 might have caused

a toxic species of dtrei Kampot indigenous to the Anlong Veng district to migrate

downstream to the Srey Snom district.

Tana has no easy answers as to why other species of fish and the Stung Sreng river

itself have allegedly begun to show evidence of toxicity.

"I want to investigate and take blood samples ... and find out what really is

going on there [in Srey Snom]," Tana said. "But I have no money for this

kind of investigation, so all I can do is make assumptions."

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