Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - WHO gives all-clear to waste despite massive mercury readings

WHO gives all-clear to waste despite massive mercury readings

WHO gives all-clear to waste despite massive mercury readings

welding.jpg
welding.jpg

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

them yet.

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

been removed.

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

trafficking."

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