Sickened port worker Taing Sy Lay now spends most of her salary
on medicine since the dumping
On November 30, 1998, the Taiwanese freighter Chang Sun docked in Sihanoukville Port,
its hold packed with thousands of tons of highly toxic waste.
In the first of a two part series, Chea Sotheacheath and Phelim Kyne
return to Sihanoukville and find that fear, anger and questions about who was responsible
for the waste dumping and its health effects remain unresolved.
Fifteen kilometers outside of Sihanoukville on National Route 4, the landscape
of flat farmland and scrub forest is broken by a cluster of shipping containers rusting
in a field of grazing cows. The 144 containers, their doors ajar in the wind or removed
completely by enterprising scrap metal merchants, stand as a memorial to what environmentalists
have described as "the worst act of toxic waste dumping in recent times".
It was this patch of open ground that on Dec 4, 1998 became the dump site for 2,900
tons of highly toxic waste produced in a Formosa Plastics Corporation (FPC) polyvinyl
chloride factory in Taiwan in the eighties.
And although accompanying FPC documentation innocuously referred to the waste as
"cement cake", later testing discovered concentrations of mercury more
than 20,000 times above safety limits as well as dangerous levels of dioxin and polychlorinated
The cargo containers were deployed on Dec 23, 1998 as a desperate stop-gap measure
to contain the huge piles of dusty, poisoned rubble in an attempt to stem the mounting
tide of hysteria as panicking residents fled the city en masse as reports of death
and illness spread across the city.
One year later, the containers, their former contents condemning them to "toxic
waste" status under US EPA regulations, remain undisturbed as official memory
of the events of last December quickly fade.
"Idon't remember anything
about that matter ... it was a year ago," Special Advisor to Prime Minister
Hun Sen, Om Yen Tieng told the Post in response to questions about his role in negotiations
with Formosa Plastics that resulted in the waste being removed from Cambodia on March
30, 1999. "Talking about that issue is like digging up a dead body that's already
According to Human Rights Watch, at least seven Sihanoukville residents are known
to have died from events linked to the dumping.
Two men died with symptoms of acute mercury poisoning, four were killed in car accidents
as residents fled the city while another man was killed from injuries incurred when
angry residents mobbed the Sihanoukville headquarters of Kamsab, one of several government
agencies blamed for the waste's importation.
The same kind of amnesia suffered by Om Yen Tieng apparently also affects the Phnom
Penh headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO).
"I hadn't heard about any deaths. ... I know that people got sick but this is
the first time I've heard about deaths," explained Bill Pigott, WHO Country
Representative since May 1999. "When I came I was briefed extensively by [former
WHO Country Representative] George Petersen and he didn't mention there were deaths."
An independent American toxicologist who has done consulting work for Legal Aid of
Cambodia (LAC) regarding the dumping is horrified at blasé official attitudes
toward the events in Sihanoukville last year.
"It appears that everyone in a position of authority wants to downplay the potential
seriousness of the problem," the toxicologist, who requested anonymity, told
the Post by email. "It appears WHO is more concerned about alarming people than
about seeing to an adequate evaluation of potential harm to their health."
Sok Poeu is a good first-hand
source regarding the lethality of the Chang Sun's cargo. The 28 year-old mother of
three is the widow of Pich Sovann, a port worker who died in agony on Dec. 16 after
spending two days inhaling clouds of mercury-laden dust while sweeping out the hold
of the ship.
Today, cattle can be seen grazing freely on the former dump site
"My children have lost their future," Poeu said.
"I've had to send one of my children to live in Siem Reap because I can't afford
to support three children on my own."
Sovann's death was followed three days later by the death of a twenty-three year
old male resident of Koki village, adjacent the dump site, who died after having
slept for several days on plastic sheeting that he had scavenged there.
Both men were cremated before Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or WHO
officials could perform autopsies, leading both organizations to classify their causes
of death as "inconclusive".
Official dismissal of the role of the waste in the deaths of the two men angers Mak
Sithirith, Environment Network Coordinator for the NGO Forum on Cambodia.
"The symptoms of the people who died showed strong signs of mercury poisoning
- exhaustion, dehydration, inability to urinate, lack of red blood cells," Sithirith
said. "The MSF and WHO reports don't tell the whole story ... how can they say
that the effects weren't so serious?"
Sithirith's sentiments are shared by Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, which
monitors the global movements of hazardous waste.
Puckett, who visited the Sihanoukville dump site in January and has monitored developments
closely over the past year, is convinced that the two men died from acute mercury
poisoning from exposure to the waste.
"The waste is heavily contaminated with mercury ... two persons died from similar
symptoms following close association with the waste," said Puckett.
"A mercury specialist has told me that in his opinion, it is likely that the
cause of deaths was inhalation of mercury vapors."
Taing Sy Lay, a Sihanoukville
Port worker who was hospitalized for five days last December after falling ill during
the unloading of the waste, says much of her salary is now spent on medicine she
takes for constant fatigue and dizziness.
"In the hospital the doctor told me my blood showed mercury [contamination],
but that it would go away" said Lay.
"I've become so weak that I miss five or six days of work each month. ... A
lot of my coworkers feel the same way."
According to a February, 1999 MSF study of 1,300 people exposed to the waste, Lay
and her co-workers should not be feeling the way they do. MSF concluded that 48%
of port workers and 35% of residents of Bettrang Commune adjacent the dump site had
illnesses: "consistent with short term exposure to toxins and also consistent
with the 60 day half-life of mercury in the body"
However, MSF concluded that it had found no evidence that long-term health effects
could be expected by those exposed to the waste.
The MSF conclusions don't go down very well in Bettrang Commune, whose residents
swarmed over the waste within hours of the dumping, oblivious to the danger. Residents
prized the triple-lined plastic bags that held the waste and in some cases pieces
of the waste itself.
"People thought that the waste was a kind of fertilizer, and brought it home
for their crops," said Bettrang Commune official Long Nau. "People used
the bags to store rice, or as bed sheets and window screens."
Bettrang was certainly no exemplar of good public health even before toxic waste
complicated the lives of the people here. Gastroenteritis and malaria are rife, and
raw running sores on the legs of naked children in this village testify to the community's
But according to residents and commune officials, health conditions of many residents
have taken a definitive turn for the worse since last December. They blame their
exposure to the waste and a water supply possibly tainted by runoff from the dumpsite
on the hill above them.
"Things have really changed since last year," Nau said. "People have
a lot of new health problems [like] strange respiratory problems since touching the
Chhim Poeu, a teacher in Bettrang, says that many local people connect the dump site
with numerous deaths over the past year. "I can count 14 strong, healthy people
who've died in the past year, people who shouldn't have died," Poeu said.
Bettrang Commune official Long Nau says there have been many health problems in the area since the dumping.
Mysterious deaths and illnesses are apparently not restricted to Bettrang's human
residents. "Cows and buffaloes that eat the grass up there get sick and develop
strange shiny bumps on their bodies," Poeu added. "Sometimes we find that
a cow has just died up there for no apparent reason."
Not to worry, says Heng Narith, Director of the Department of Pollution Control at
the Ministry of the Environment, who brandishes results of surface and ground water
testing done by the WHO in recent months at eight locations in and around the former
The tests results are analyzed at Japan's National Minimata Institute and are scheduled
to continue for a year.
"The latest results from samples taken in Oct, 1999 indicate all values [of
mercury contamination] are still well below safe drinking water guidelines,"
"We don't want to say we don't believe them [the villagers], but we can't do
anything without realistic information from physicians."
LAC's toxicologist advisor questions the accuracy and utility of the WHO water testing.
"The waste was never, in my opinion, tested adequately to identify both the
variety of toxic substances or the maximum amounts of these substances," he
explained. "Without this pre-existing knowledge, one cannot begin to model the
ground water contamination ... are ground water experts participating in this or
is the local WHO group just muddling through?"
Puckett was also highly critical of the unrestricted access to the former dumping
Although 4,000 tons of topsoil from the site were removed as part of the area's clean-up
by the hazardous waste landfill company Safety-Kleen Services Inc., Puckett fears
that Bettrang residents who regularly comb the former site for beetles and lizards
which they eat or sell in the Sihanoukville market run the risk of further toxic
"Stating that planting plants over the site to supposedly prevent access and
exposure, even if somebody bothers to do it, is a non-solution," Puckett said
of the proposals by the American environmental engineering firm CDM International,
which supervised the decontamination of the dump site. "The area should be cordoned
off and placed under guard, the ground water and soil continually tested until levels
reach background level."
According to Pigott, concern about the safety of the former dump site is unnecessary.
In a written statement to the Post Pigott stated that "the waste removal operations...were
very effective in removing nearly all of the 2,800 metric tons of concentrated waste
material plus a great deal of soil and other material that had come into contact
with the waste."
WHO's declaration of the area as "very clean" is characterized by LAC's
consultant toxicologist as: "stupid science and even more stupid health policy".
"First, without knowing how deep into the soil the mercury and its strong alkali
medium penetrated, the site is probably not very clean at all," the toxicologist
commented. "Animals of various species living on the site that get contaminated
by eating worms, larvae and other fauna living in this greatly contaminated soil
will provide dietary exposure at the next step up the food chain - to those eating
Strangely, although both Narith and Pigott indicated that WHO research in the former
dump site was confined to water testing, Bettrang villagers told the Post that "foreign
doctors" had collected hair and breast milk samples from residents in early
"They didn't tell us what organization they were from," said one woman
who had been asked to provide the unidentified medical personnel with a sample of
her breast milk.
Conflicting and inconclusive medical evidence of possible long term health damage
to Sihanoukville residents exposed to the waste has to date hampered attempts by
alleged victims to seek legal redress for their ills.
George Cooper, a legal consultant with LAC, says plans are afoot to bring researchers
from an unnamed American university to Sihanoukville to perform sophisticated testing
for evidence of health conditions resulting from exposure to the waste.
"There's real serious culpability somewhere [for the toxic waste's importation],"
Cooper said of LAC's continuing interest in the case, "but exactly where we
don't yet know."
If the proposed testing does indicate the existence of long term illness from waste
exposure, Cooper says LAC has already explored the possibility of representing affected
Sihanoukville residents in a civil compensation claim in a Taiwan court against the
waste's producer, Formosa Plastics Company.
"We've checked with Taiwan to see if based on [proof of illness due to exposure],
could we sue, and the answer is yes," Cooper told the Post. "But we still
don't know if there's a case ... it depends on how far down the causation chain [in
terms of death and damage caused by the dumping] Taiwan law allows us to go."
Here in Cambodia, the legal fallout over the waste's importation effectively ended
on June 17, 1999, when two Taiwanese representatives of the Jade Fortune import company,
their Cambodian interpreter and Sam Moeun of Cambodia's Muth Vuthy Import Export
Company were convicted of "conspiring to damage the environment."
The two Taiwanese, Chang Fu Kung and Kao Chia Song, were sentenced in absentia to
five years imprisonment as was their interpreter Phann Phoeung. Moeun was sentenced
to seven months imprisonment.
Although there have been rumors of multi-million dollar bribes to facilitate the
waste's importation no officials have been successfully prosecuted.
"People in Sihanoukville are so unhappy about this ... they know this was a
real crime but no one has come to investigate who perpetrated that crime"said
Kek Galabru, director of the human rights group Licadho.
Soldiers seal up the waste last December
"People still tell our staff in Sihanoukville that there can't be justice if
[the waste dumping] goes unpunished."
Galabru fears that the most poignant lessons of the Sihanoukville toxic dumping have
been to underline the rot within the country rather than any future threats from
"Cambodians aren't angry at Taiwan for this, they're angry at their own government,"
she said. "[The dumping] showed there's a double standard of law for rich and
poor in this country, and in the case of Sihanoukville it was the poor that have
again been made to suffer."