THE World Health Organization (WHO) has told the NGO Forum to alter its already-published
Dec 25-28 report on the Sihanoukville toxic scandal.
WHO director Georg Petersen - in a Jan 19 facsimile message to the NGO Forum twice
stamped "urgent" - has ordered changes that seem to be designed to
distance the WHO from its own public statements that there was "no abnormal
level of... mercury" found during WHO/Minimata Institute tests of water wells,
and that no-one showed symptoms of mercury poisoning.
These public assurances have not been retracted.
One well - the "Woodcutters' Well" in Bettrang village near the dump -
was ordered closed in the WHO's Jan 11 report. However, no mention was made as to
why it should have been closed - at a time when Petersen and government officials
were all publicly maintaining there was no danger to people from the waste.
As of 16 January, the well was not closed. Villagers were still using the water.
After its report was released, WHO/Japanese testers found that sediment in the Woodcutters'
water contained elevated levels of mercury, though WHO says subsequently that those
levels fall within accepted safety standards.
A foreign environmentalist now in Cambodia investigating the scandal, Jim Puckett
of the Basel Action Network (BAN), said Petersen admitted to him in a private conversation
that the mercury waste had in fact got into the water.
Puckett said: "As soon as [Petersen] knew [about the second higher test of mercury]
he should have made a new recommendation and closed off the area, put up fences and
seal it off."
Petersen says all this seems to be simply due to a widespread "misunderstanding"
of public WHO statements and recommendations.
He told the Post the misunderstandings may have arisen because the WHO's report "was
written by the Japanese".
However, the Post has discovered that Petersen has demanded that the NGO Forum alter
its report as follows:
ï where it has written that WHO testing of urine and blood samples of nine sick dock
workers was "normal", Petersen wants "WHO" to be changed to "Minimata
ï that WHO assurances that "none [of the workers]... have symptoms of poisoning"
be changed to "their symptoms may be caused by other contents of the waste";
ï to delete entirely the phrase "... WHO reported that test of blood and urine
of dock workers and soldiers had proven normal. WHO finally concludes that none seems
to have symptoms of poisoning";
ï and, similarly in the report's conclusion, to add in a sentence "[the workers']
complaints may be caused by other contents of the waste than mercury".
Puckett said the WHO was now backpedalling, but that the most important issue was
that WHO was not following through its own recommendations to close the well.
The WHO and the National Institute for Minimata Disease said in a Jan 11 report that
they had tested local water wells and found "no abnormal level of... mercury".
However, Petersen has admitted to both the Post and international environmentalists
that he knew there was something wrong with the water in the Woodcutters' Well since
his visit there Dec 25 "just from looking at it".
Local villagers have complained about the water being cloudy - something Peterson
said he himself saw - since shortly after the waste was dum-ped in early December.
Villagers who use the well everyday have complained about being sick.
Environmentalists are angry that no-one in authority - from Petersen to the Ministry
of Environment (which Peterson claim-ed to the Post to have told of the Woodcutters'
well's probable contamination) - did not make it known that:
a) the WHO/government "all-clear" was probably made too early, and;
b) the WHO/Minimata report was misleading, at best, and;
c) no-one seems to know what measures have been made to close the Woodcutter's Well
- if indeed it has been closed - or if local people have been told anything other
than their water is fit to drink and use.
Petersen was asked why his report maintained that Sihan-oukville's water was safe
when it also said that the Woodcutters' Well be closed.
He replied: "That's fairly ob-vious. [The well] was so close to the site that
it was bound to have got some contaminated waste in the run-off from the site...
it was very close. You could tell it was already contaminated just by looking at
But, he was asked, why did the WHO/Minimata report say - and public statement repeat
- that Sihanoukville's water sources were free from contaminants? Petersen: "How
can I say this without confusing the issue? The mercury we tested was on a very low
level when we did the first test. It was the same as the other three wells we tested.
Then [the reading] was not elevated.
"We re-tested the samples by dissolving sediment found in the water, rather
than just testing the water itself. That was after the WHO/Minimata report was written.
They then found a higher level of contamination in the Woodcutters' Well... and concluded
that this had been contaminated by the surface run-off water. But still the level
of mercury is below the danger level."
When asked whether he had made public this second testing, Petersen said: "Um.
No. I informed the Ministry of Environment."
Petersen confirmed to the Post that he "did not know" whether the water
could be described "toxic".
"That I don't know," he said, "we are having an expert come in on
Sunday [Jan 24] to assess the damage.... I personally am not capable of technically
answering the question, I'm not a hydrologist."
Petersen - now in Bangkok - could not be contacted by the Post to ask why he had
instructed the NGO Forum investigators to amend their report.
Environmentalists this week slammed the way the WHO had handled the waste scandal,
saying it was "at best immature and at worst irresponsible".
Greenpeace activist Von Her-nandez called it "the worst case of waste dumping
we have seen for a long time".
Speaking at a press conference in Phnom Penh, he said Greenpeace and the Basel Action
Network had taken samples from the site to test independently for contamination.
They were deeply concerned, he said, that only heavy metals had been tested, rather
than combinations of organic substances and pollutants such as cancer-causing dioxins.
Petersen maintained Jan 20 that his report had been accurate.
He said he fully supported the recommendations of the two activists, but added that
he felt the original WHO report had been misunderstood by the media and environmentalists.
"I never said there was no health risk," he said.
Puckett said that Cambodia was an easy target for rich, developed countries, and
that the case had been "sadly pre-dictible, but surely preventable".