FORGET THE FUMES
A worker welds shut one of nearly 6,000 barrels of toxic waste excavated
from the Sihanoukville dumpsite.
TThe World Health Organization (WHO) has dismissed fears that people have been poisoned
by mercury, despite scientific confirmation that the mercury readings from the waste
are up to 20,000 times higher than safety standards.
Toxic metals experts and activists are worried that an all-clear has come too early.
Tests carried out by the National Institute for Minamata Disease on waste at the
dump site revealed extraordinarily high levels of inorganic mercury - up to 3,984
parts per million (ppm) when the recommended safety level is less than 0.2 ppm.
Yet Georg Petersen, director of the WHO in Cambodia, this week claimed that the waste
"posed no immediate danger to the population of Sihanoukville".
"This type of mercury is not easily dissolved in water," he said outside
a public meeting in Sihan-oukville Jan 2. "It is not the most poisonous form
of mercury". He also said that blood and hair samples taken from port workers
and soldiers involved in the cleanup showed no abnormal levels of mercury.
He admitted that urine tests on the same people showed higher levels, but that could
be due to dietary or environmental factors.
However, an internationally established toxicologist and environmental health scientist,
who is currently advising the NGO Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC), said that blood and
hair tests are not as indicative of inorganic mercury poisoning as urine tests.
According to LAC attorney consultant Michele Brandt, the toxicologist, who wishes
to remain anonymous, said that incinerator ash - which usually contains high levels
of many metals - can be a "witch's brew of numerous substances that work to
amplify each others' toxicity". The expert also said that there was a critical
difference between the exposure of, say, children who have been playing in the waste
compared with that of adults, such as port workers.
Brandt said the toxins specialist was also worried that biological indicators such
as urine samples might become less effective over time. "It's critical that
we test the villagers as soon as possible", she said.
Environment minister Dr Mok Mareth said this week that he had asked Sihanoukville
Hospital to cooperate in testing villagers who had touched the waste, but as many
villagers around Sihanoukville attested, no-one from the authorities has contacted
The Sihanoukville dumping scandal has continued to attract attention from concerned
parties around the world. The Basel Action Network, a group of activists dedicated
to banning global waste trafficking have already contacted the Ministry of Environment
with a whole range of concerns, according to Jim Puckett, an activist with the group.
Puckett stressed his concerns that there was still not enough information available
on the organic content of the waste material, particularly dioxins.
"If the waste comes from the largest PVC manufacturer in the world [Formosa
Plastics], and if the waste is some form of incinerator ash, then it is highly likely
that the waste contains dioxins," he said.
Dioxin is targeted for global phase-out in a treaty now being negotiated under the
UN Environment Program as one of the worst persistent organic pollutants.
Mareth confirmed that he had received a testing request from Puc-kett and that tests
were now under way in Japan to determine whether dioxin was present in the Sihan-oukville
waste. "If there's dioxin present, it's very very dangerous."
Mareth also agreed that secondary tests should be carried out once the waste has
Puckett agreed that this was important. "In my experience, there is really no
way to know if you have got all of the contamination unless another full analysis
of the remaining soil on the site is tested. What might have migrated off site or
below site due to water or wind depends on the weather conditions and the nature
of the waste."
As of 6 Dec, officials said the waste had been cleared and sealed into 5,950 barrels
and 143 containers on-site.
Yet even this has caused concern. Workers heat-sealed the containers with welding
equipment. According to an anonymous source at the WHO, applying heat to mercury
is a sure way to release mercury vapors into the air.
Puckett, who is due to arrive in Cambodia 15 Jan for talks with the government and
environmental NGOs, was adamant that Cambodia and Taiwan should now ratify the Basel
Convention which forbids trade in hazardous wastes. More than 100 countries are signatories
of the 1989 convention.
Had Cambodia and Taiwan been members, he said, it would have been illegal for the
waste to have been brought to the country, and a legal requirement for Taiwan to
take it back again.
"As tragic and despicable as this dumping has been, the greater tragedy would
be if governments sat on their hands and failed to take the obvious step of joining
the vast majority of the global community that has already condemned and banned waste