The minister of industry and handcrafts last week linked the mass poisonings in Kratie province to the use of cyanide in gold mining operations upstream in Mondulkiri province, calling on relevant government ministries and agencies to prevent the deadly chemical from use in mining.
Earlier this month, 300 villagers living in Sre Norn and A lorch villages, in Chet Borey district’s Kantuot commune in Kratie, started experiencing stomachaches, headaches, nausea, exhaustion, dizziness and difficulty breathing and were sent to Kratie Provincial Hospital and Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh. According to the Health Ministry, to date, 14 patients have died, while local villagers put the number at 18, according to Radio Free Asia. Initial causes of the mysterious illness included tainted rice wine and the contamination of water from Prek Te River brought on by farmers’ use of weed and insect pesticides.
On Thursday, Industry Minister Cham Prasidh announced that a comprehensive investigation involving experts from multiple institutions with the cooperation of local authorities revealed that along with methanol in rice wine and chromium and nitrous acid in water from the Prek Te River, the discovery of cyanide in the water originating in the upper sections of the river also contributed to the illnesses.
Prasidh blamed gold miners, who use cyanide to flush the shafts, for mishandling the deadly chemical, allowing it to run into waterways.
“Some blamed chromium because the chemical is in the pesticides farmers use . . . but weed pesticide does not contain cyanide. We traced the cyanide to gold mines – both licensed and unlicensed operations – in Mondulkiri province,” the minister confirmed. “[Miners] use it but there is no system in place so that when it rains . . . it prevents the chemical from flowing into the river and polluting the water.”
Cyanide can cause serious health issues such as a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, seizures and death.
Prasidh said immediate action is needed to prevent the poison from flowing into the country’s rivers, including the regular sampling of water, especially any stream that runs into the Mekong River. He also urged the government to take measures to ensure that gold mining is safe.
Hang Chandy, Chet Borey district governor, said the moratorium announced on May 6 on consuming water from the Prek Te River and canal has been extended until officials can ensure the water is safe. In the meantime, a plan to construct up to 60 wells in the area are on underway.