At first, people did not know anything about the waste; that's why they collected the plastic. At first, we were happy. Later, we were terrified.
B Po Theung village chief Sao Han
Exposure to the Waste
People immediately exposed to the waste included about 280 port workers who unloaded and cleaned the ship and about 2,950 local people living near the dumpsite. The waste was dumped about 500 meters off a main highway, in a slightly elevated location, which slopes away on three sides. To one side, several thousand meters away, is Bettrang commune (population about 2,850).29 On the other side, about one hundred meters from the site, there was at the time a small community of woodcutters and their families, totaling approximately one hundred people. The woodcutters' village had a water well and several sawmills, which the cutters depended on for their living. They, and the Bettrang villagers, commonly walked across the area where the waste was dumped, in order to gather wood from the nearby forest. There are also several small streams a little further afield from the dumpsite.
No attempt was made to guard the site, or otherwise seal it off, despite it being near the army base, which the trucks had to drive through to dump the waste. According to villagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, within four hours after trucks began to dump the waste, local residents began scavenging. They immediately saw the value of the white, triple-lined plastic covers on the waste. Some of the covers were already broken, spilling out the waste, which came in pieces ranging from brick size to half a cubic square meter, while others were still intact. The subsistence villagers used knives, their teeth or whatever else they could to rip away the plastic. The majority of the people in this commune went there, one villager said. Another added: Each family collected piles of plastic bags. We were very happy. We didn't know about the poison. 30 The villagers saw warning signs B some saw pictures of skulls, and others red crosses B on some but not all of the plastic bags.31 No one was sure of what the signs meant. Some people asked the truck drivers [dumping the waste] whether it was poisonous, but they said no, reported one villager.32 They did wonder why no one tried to prevent their pillaging. Some villagers were told that the waste was wreckage from old buildings, while others heard that a crockery factory was to be built at the site. Some even suggested that they thought that the material was international aid to Cambodia. Back at their homes, they carved or sewed the plastic into what they wanted, including sacks for their rice harvest. When they had enough plastic for themselves, they began selling it to families further afield. Children trampled around the site, taking the chunks of waste home to use as toys, or rubbing them against twigs to try to start fires. People walked all over the site. Their hands got dirty. They wiped their hands a little and then drank water with their hands, said one man. The authorities did not care. The people had no idea [what the waste was], and neither did we, said commune chief In Sok.33
Sickness and Death
Within a few days, people began falling sick in Bettrang. Diarrhea, headache, vomiting, fever, fatigue, thirst, skin rashes or blisters, dizziness, throat pain or tightness, coughing, stomach ache, chest pain, numbness, joint pain, pained or irregular urination, and loss of appetite were among the symptoms reported. (Most people had only some symptoms, not all.) The villagers drew a connection with the waste when rats that had nibbled at scavenged plastic sheets died, as did two pigs that rooted in a pile of the rubbish.34 The number of people affected is uncertain, but in one of Bettrang commune's three villages, Po Theung Village, an estimated 50 percent of 1,200 residents fell sick.35 Local medical officials started to investigate, concluding that none of these illnesses were serious or life-threatening.36 On the other side of the waste site, at the small mill village, roughly seventy percent of the small population there reported diarrhea, headaches, dizziness.37
On December 16, 1998, thirty-year-old port worker Pich Sovann, who had helped to unload the waste shipment and clean out the ship's holds from December 4 to 6, was hospitalized and died. In the next three days, at least five other people, some port workers, others residents who had contact with the waste, were hospitalized with some, but not all, of the same symptoms. Pich Sovann's body was cremated without autopsy. It was later found impossible to conclusively link his death, or indeed the sickness of the villagers and other port workers, to the waste (see Section VI).
29 Bettrang commune comprises three villages: Po Theung (closest to the dumpsite), Koki, and Chamnot Ream.
30 Human Rights Watch interviews with local residents and officials, March 13-14, 1999.
31 Formosa Plastics (in line with its stated belief that it had not considered the waste hazardous) has consistently denied that it put any warning signs on the bags. It is not known if the signs were put on by the Taiwanese or Cambodian subcontractors or another party.
32 Human Rights Watch interviews with local residents and officials, March 13-14, 1999.
34 Mak Sithirith, Vann Piseth and Chheun Kun Cheat, APreliminary Study of the Impacts of Toxic Waste on the People of Sihanoukville,@ NGO Forum on Cambodia, December 25-28, 1998.
35 Human Rights Watch interview with village chief Sao Han, March 13, 1999.
36 Dr. Lo Vannay, AReport on investigation of suspected cases affected by the toxic waste,@ Sihanoukville Provincial Health Department, December 19, 1998.
37 December 1998 statements by Legal Aid of Cambodia, a nongovernment legal aid group which arranged assistance for the people.
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