THERE IS a macabre ritual involved with eating fish at Chhoeun Chien's home in Srey
Snom, 60 kilometers north of Siem Reap.
Srey Snom resident Seng Sophoeung displays some of the fish that he and his fellow villagers say are poisoning them
After cooking the fish, Chien, Srey Snom District's First Deputy Governor, cuts off
a piece of the flesh, feeds it to an unsuspecting chicken or dog and sits back to
see if the animal dies.
"The poison in the fish is really strong, and an animal will usually die within
about 10 minutes of eating it," Chien said of the rudimentary but effective
toxicology test he and his neighbors have developed. "Another way of checking
for poison is to cut open the fish and watch to see if it attracts flies or ants
... we've discovered that insects won't touch the poison fish."
Chien's precautions are anything but superstitious folk belief.
Between June 24 and June 27, Chien watched in horror as the nearby Stung Sreng river
and the fish within it underwent a sinister metamorphosis from a provider of cheap
protein to a source of sickness and death.
In that four-day period, seven of Chien's neighbors died and dozens more were sickened
after eating fish caught in and around the nearby Stung Sreng River.
The mass poisoning - the first in living memory in the area - has shocked and baffled
both villagers and district and provincial health authorities.
The resulting fear and confusion has bred a virulent local rumor industry that has
alternately blamed the poisoning on everything from overuse of pesticides or a naturally
toxic fish species to a legacy of chemical warfare waged by former Khmer Rouge military
commander Ta Mok in his defense of the upstream former Khmer Rouge stronghold of
For Chien and his neighbors, finding the cause of the poisonings is a matter of vital
Srey Snom residents insist that villagers are continuing to be sickened by fish caught
in and around the Stung Sreng river, and that the number of contaminated species
has grown and the river water itself is showing signs of contamination.
"The poisonings connected to fish consumption [in Srey Snom district] are continuing."
Prak Sokun, Security Liaison Clerk for CARERE in Siem Reap told the Post on July
22. "In spite of the danger, people are continuing to eat fish because they
say they have no other option."
Although initial investigations by provincial health authorities indicated that the
source of the poisoning was isolated to species of fish classified as tetradontus
and known locally as dtrei Kampot ("Kampot fish"), Srey Snom officials
now say that the contamination has since spread to other fish species in the Stung
"Most of the fish species in the river seem to be poisonous now," Touch
Sim, Srey Snom district's Second Deputy Governor, told the Post on July 28. "By
July 5 we'd counted a total of 103 victims, but people are continuing to get sick
eating fish that were originally thought to be safe."
Chien has first-hand experience of the risks of consuming fish species originally
considered "safe" by medical authorities.
On July 28, a day after the initial mass poisonings linked to dtrei Kampot , Chien
sat down to a meal of roast catfish and ended up "almost dying".
"About three minutes after I'd started eating the fish I experienced stomach
pain, then almost immediate diarrhea, vomiting and blindness," Chien recalled.
"My vision returned after two days, but even now I'm still very, very weak."
Chien's experience and that of numerous neighbors has convinced him that the source
of the poison has now expanded to other fish species.
More ominously, Chien says there is strong evidence that the water of the Strung
Sreng river and the paddy areas it has flooded has also become toxic.
"People have started to get strange sores on their legs from working in the
rice paddies and from bathing in the river," he said. "The water has a
strange smell it's never had before ... people are starting to bathe only with rainwater
because they are afraid."
Jim Puckett, a toxicologist with the Basel Action Network, an NGO which lobbies for
the elimination of toxic chemical trafficking, said a thorough investigation of the
Srey Snom poisoning is urgently needed.
"It sounds to me like you're either looking for a biological toxin or a chemical
one that kills people but not fish," Puckett told the Post by email.
"But this type of guesswork can only lead to false assumptions - more information
is needed rapidly."