The Ministry of Agriculture has played down the results of a study that found high levels of arsenic in some samples of locally grown rice.
The study, published in the International Journal of Water and Wastewater Treatment at the end of January, found the arsenic content of some rice samples surpassed acceptable levels by as much as threefold in five provinces, with the worst found in Kandal province.
Citing a 2013 study in West Bengal, the study’s author, Yumei Kang of the Kochi University in Japan, noted that prolonged exposure to rice containing more than the internationally mandated maximum quantity of arsenic places people at a heightened risk of genetic damage.
According to standards set in July 2014 by the World Health Organization and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, a kilogram of rice should contain no more than 0.2 milligrams of arsenic. However, in Kandal some samples yielded levels as high as 0.649 mg/kg.
Kampong Thom samples contained nearly twice the acceptable level at 0.371 mg/kg. Banteay Meanchey, Battambang and Prey Veng all produced samples above the 0.2 mg/kg maximum.
Kang called for those living in high-risk areas to “receive critical attention”.
“Regulations preventing rice contaminated with high levels of arsenic from reaching the market are needed,” he added.
Agriculture Ministry spokesman Eang Sophalleth said he was not familiar with the research but was adamant Cambodia’s rice did not have an arsenic problem.
“Listen, I can assure you there is no contamination in Cambodian rice, before we export rice, it goes through a test and if there was contamination it would not be allowed to be exported,” said Sophalleth, adding that the same procedures are in place for rice destined for domestic consumption.
“We have the Department of Land, Surveying and Management where we test the soil nutrition and soil contamination. If there is irregularity there, they would report it and we would act on it.”
Song Saran, chief executive of Cambodian wholesaler Amru Rice, which draws on the produce of 4,000 rice farmers, said arsenic was a major concern, but he too insisted there was not a contamination issue.
“I assure you, in Cambodia, we’re good compared to the region,” said Saran, who did call on the government to stay vigilant.
“It’s in the air, in the land, in the water. So normally it’s difficult for farmers to prevent arsenic levels in the rice. But we need to use land that has been checked for contamination,” he said.
“The government should check all rice production, and if there’s any high levels, they should alert the farmers.”