Hazardous materials from Taiwan were dumped in a village in Cambodia about a month ago. UnsuspeoAng villagers now complain of a host of diseases

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Cambodian soldiers putting tox (Credit: Chor Sokunthea /Reuters)IN THE first week of December 1998, about 3,000 tonnes of industrial materials from Taiwan were dumped in Sihanoukville, a village in Cambodia. The villagers, who were unaware of the toxic nature of the dump, were thrilled with the contents. It contained cement-like materials in white plastic sacks which could be used for tents, canopies and bedding. They opened the strings of the bags with their teeth. They rinsed, the bags and used them to store rice.

Gradually the effects of the substances began to tell. Some villagers complained of severe headaches, others of diarrhoea, rashes and loss of weight. "We thought we were in luck. For me the bags were just what I needed to make a sleeping mat," says Em Sim, 35, a villager. The mat that she used smelt of cement. Soon she began to have headaches, felt thirsty and tired. She lost her appetite, suffered from diarrhoea and began to lose weight. Chhien, her five-year-old son, who played in the dusty waste material, has developed a rash and a fever.

About 40 families, living in the affected area, have similar tales to tell. When they came to know of the toxic nature of the materials, they evacuated the village. News of this incident has aroused international condemnation. A dockworker, who cleaned the ship that transported the material, has died and five others have been hospitalised.

When tests were conducted on the waste material, experts found that the compressed ash from an from an industrial waste incinerator contained high levels of mercury as well as possibly hazardous mix of other materials.

Formosa Plastics Corp, which sent the waste, said that it was unable to dump it in Taiwan because of a threat of public protests. When the Cambodian government threatened to sue, the government of Taiwan agreed to take back the waste.

The villagers say they came to know of the toxicity of the material only when two local journalists arrived two weeks after it was dumped to take pictures. The villagers complain that the government has not come to their rescue. The only government action was to have the military seal the village and order villagers td leave. They say that they have not been tested for poisoning, nor treated for their ailments. They have also not been provided alternative shelter. At present, they are living as squatters and surviving on donation from the World Food Program.

Though it has been one month since the dumping took place, it is still not clear as to how toxic the material is. Government officials, who are inexperienced in handling such emergencies, did not advise the villagers to move when the possibility of poisoning was first raised, said Michele Brandt, an American lawyer who works with Legal Aid of Cambodia, a local human rights group. She is representing the affected villagers.

"Although tests have found 'extremely high' concentrations of inorganic mercury, the material posed little immediate threat to health," said George Peterson, the Cambodian representative for the World Health Organisation. Brandt says that the evacuees' exposure seemed to have been more direct and prolonged than that of the port workers and soldiers.

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