Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - WHO tells NGO team to change toxic report

WHO tells NGO team to change toxic report

WHO tells NGO team to change toxic report

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These public assurances have not been retracted.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

Institute";

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

it."

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".

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