(Bangkok) – The Thai government has failed to clean up toxic lead in a stream in western Thailand, threatening hundreds of families with serious and irreversible health problems, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Supreme Administrative Court’s order nearly two years ago to clean up Klity Creek, the first of its kind in Thailand, has been ignored by the government while villagers remain exposed to lead in water, soil, vegetables, and fish.
The 32-page report, “Toxic Water, Tainted Justice,” describes 16 years of failure by Thailand’s Pollution Control Department and public health authorities to prevent further exposure to lead among the village’s ethnic Karen residents. A 12-minute video accompanying the report highlights serious health and environmental damage caused by a now-defunct lead processing factory, as well as the efforts by local residents to seek justice. Many residents of Lower Klity Creek village suffer the symptoms of chronic lead poisoning, such as abdominal pain, headaches, fatigue, and mood changes. Some children have been born with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“The Thai authorities apparently believe they can ignore a clear court order to clean up the toxic site,” said Richard Pearshouse, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “This is one of the most heavily polluted industrial sites in all of Thailand, hundreds of people suffer harm, and it needs immediate government action.”
On January 10, 2013, Thailand’s highest administrative court ordered the government to clean up toxic lead in the creek until test results from the water, soil, vegetables, and aquatic animals in and around the creek fall below permissible levels. Although clean-up activities should have begun by May 1, 2014, Thailand’s Pollution Control Department says it is still studying how to clean up the creek.
Lower Klity Creek villagers may be exposed to lead in their daily lives – by drinking water or eating fish and other aquatic animals, by eating food grown in lead-contaminated plots or cooked in lead-contaminated water, by contact with polluted soil around their houses, or breathing air contaminated by lead dust. The Pollution Control Department’s environmental tests found unacceptably high levels of lead in soil along the creek bank, as well as in the water and creek sediment, and contaminating fish, shrimp, crabs, and vegetables at various locations along the creek.
Despite this catastrophe, in 2011, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment commissioned an environmental assessment of lead mines in Kanchanaburi province, raising the possibility of Thailand reopening and further developing lead mining and the lead industry.
“The Thai government seems to be ignoring the lessons from the pollution of Klity Creek and the poisoning of villagers,” Pearshouse said. “Thailand should clean up Klity Creek and provide medical care to affected villagers before even thinking of expanding lead mining.”
The response by provincial and district public health authorities to the situation has been wholly inadequate, Human Rights Watch said. Many village residents who were tested did not receive the results of their blood tests. Others were told the lead levels in their blood were “safe” despite international guidance that there is no safe level of lead exposure. Children who had elevated lead levels did not receive follow-up medical care. Many villagers told Human Rights Watch that public health authorities simply stopped performing local blood tests for lead by 2008.
Lead is highly toxic and can interrupt the body’s neurological, biological, and cognitive functions. The ingestion of high levels of lead can cause brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage as well as anemia, comas, convulsions, and even death. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible, and high levels of lead exposure can cause permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities, including reading and learning disabilities, behavioral problems, attention problems, as well as hearing loss and disruption in the development of visual and motor functioning.
As a result of increasing industrialization and mineral extraction, Thailand faces rising concerns about health impacts from pollution in numerous sites around the country, including Na Nong Bong in Loei province (cyanide, mercury, and arsenic), Mao Tao in Tak province (cadmium), Pitchit province (manganese and arsenic), and near the Map Tha Phut industrial area in Rayong province (industrial chemicals).
Thailand has ratified core international human rights conventions and a range of environmental treaties. These place obligations on governments to protect the environment, safe drinking water, and the health of its citizens, with a special emphasis on children and other vulnerable groups, including women, people with disabilities, and indigenous people. Thailand’s National Health Act also provides that everyone has the right to a healthy environment. In international law, the rights to the highest attainable standard of health and to water also entail the right to an effective remedy for violations of these rights.
“The Thai government needs to stop ignoring the court order and set out a clear, defined plan with a specific timeline to comply,” Pearshouse said. “A thorough clean-up of Klity Creek could help Thailand create a model for cleaning up the many places where extreme industrial pollution damages human health.”