Published: Wednesday 15 March 2000

Sihanoukville, in the southern part of the country, has become the dumping ground for trash from neighbouring countries. The flow of refuse - from electronic goods to car parts - continues with the civic authorities unable to check the problem.

In November 1998, a plastics manufacturer based in Gaoxiong, Taiwan, shipped a large quantity of mercury-laden waste into Cambodia. The company was supposed to mix the poisonous waste with concrete, to form solid blocks.

Instead, about 3,000 tonnes of crumbly waste ended up in an open pit near the port, posing a threat to the water supply. Local residents were not informed of the danger of organic mercury poisoning, which was the cause of the Minamata disease in Japan more than three decades ago. Some people even took away the vinyl bags in which the toxic waste was packed and used them to store rice. Others sprinkled the waste on farmland as a fertiliser.

Although no relationship has yet been proved, a local worker died after cleaning out the tanks of the ship in which the waste was carried. Other residents broke out with sores and skin-related diseases. The authorities removed the waste last spring, but even now, the dump emits an offensive odour that resembles the smell of burned plastic.

Cambodia does not have laws strong enough to check illegal dumping of industrial waste. Foreign companies take advantage of this situation and abandon all sorts of waste in the port city. So far, about 800 tonnes of old cassette recorders imported from South Korea have been abandoned in the open grounds around the city.

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