We only use the wells for washing clothes or bathing, but some people still use [it] for cooking.
Kandal province – KHUN Yeun, 55, has a well in her backyard, but she stopped using it after UNICEF sanitation experts concluded in 2009 that it contained extremely high levels of arsenic and carbon.
“I haven’t used the well for about a year because I was afraid of getting some disease,” said the resident of Phoum Thom village, located in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district. “We use tap water instead.”
She is not alone in her village. Chhiev Kimlorn, the village chief, said that 10 of the community’s 26 wells had been tested. According to a document she was given by UNICEF, seven of them were found to contain elevated arsenic levels.
Three were found to contain arsenic levels as high as 500 parts per billion – more than 50 times the limit considered safe by the World Health Organisation, and more than 10 times the limit considered safe by the Ministry of Rural Development.
“Most people here drink tap water,” Chhiev Kimlorn said. “We only use the wells for washing clothes or bathing, but some people still use the water for cooking.”
Both she and Khun Yeun said that although they knew the wells were dangerous, they had never been told that arsenic is a known carcinogen.
“No one has come to the village to educate people about the wells, so I had never heard that drinking well water could lead to cancer,” Chhiev Kimlorn said.
The Ministry of Rural Development said this week that up to 150,000 people living along the Mekong and Bassac rivers are consuming water from wells laced with arsenic. Mao Saray, director of the Department of Rural Water Supply at the ministry, said there were 1,607 high-risk villages in seven provinces in Cambodia.
The government’s total exposure estimate is down considerably from one included in an April 2009 independent study, which said up to 2 million people could be at risk.
Andrew Shantz, laboratory and research director for Resource Development International Cambodia, which produced the study along with Dartmouth College in the United States, said that although the April 2009 study had overestimated the problem nationwide, its estimate for Kandal was likely accurate.
“The original 100,000 estimation for Kandal is quite close, as a very high proportion of the people drinking arsenic-contaminated water are in Kandal,” he said.
Scott Fendorf, a groundwater expert at Stanford University in the US, said that “a large portion of the aquifer residing within the Mekong-Bassac floodplain is contaminated with high levels of dissolved arsenic”, and that tube wells were “providing toxic levels of arsenic”.
He said chronic arsenic poisoning causes skin discoloration as well as a hardening of the outer layer of the skin. Prolonged exposure, he said, “leads to skin cancer and various internal cancers”.
Shantz said yesterday that RDIC staff are going “door-to-door” testing wells and educating villagers such as Khun Yeun about the health risks associated with arsenic.
He noted that he would “not recommend” using arsenic-contaminated water for cooking. “But, if they are only using the contaminated water for cooking and not actually drinking it, the exposure levels should be much lower,” he said.