Monday, September 1, 2003

Arsenic poisoning in Mt. APO geothermal area confirmed

KIDAPAWAN CITY, North Cotabato -- Five-year-old Richard of Barangay Ilomavis here is severely malnourished.

But it was not his thin body that caught the attention of a team of poison, health and environment experts that came to conduct a study in his village, but the prominent white transverse lines in his fingernails.

The study, called "Health and Environment Impact of Arsenic Exposure Among Residents Near Mt. Apo Geothermal Plant" was conducted with 47 mothers and 47 children from barangays Ilomavis, Mua-an, Kisandal, Meohao, Sayaban and the Philippine National Oil Corporation (PNOC) Village as subjects, since May 2000.

Its result was released only last week.

The villages are within a radius of 10 kilometers from the geothermal plant.

Technically called Mee's lines, the lines on Richard's fingernails was a manifestation of arsenic poisoning.

When the experts from the National Poison Control and Information Service and the Department of Health, led by Dr. Nelia Maramba, a toxicologist from University of the Philippines, ran a series of tests on Richard, they confirmed their worst fear.

The boy, who regularly wriggles because of convulsions even without a fever, has a high concentration of arsenic in his body.

And the experts agreed that arsenic was slowly "eating" him.


Arsenic, a silver-gray crystalline solid, is a very poisonous element that naturally occurs in volcanic areas. It easily dissolves in water and can also exist as a compound with carbon, chlorine, sulfur or hydrogen. It has no taste and no smell so its presence would not be readily detected.

While the element naturally occurs and might find its way into food and drinking water, the standard acceptable level of arsenic in a human body is only three micrograms (mcg) per deciliter of blood.

Richard's arsenic level reached 22.07 mcg.

But Richard is only one of the seven children from six villages found positive of arsenic in a 10-km radius area within the geothermal plant.

To find out how bad the arsenic poisoning among villagers was, the research group used Barangay Pangao-an, which is outside of the 10-km radius study area, as a control area with 24 mothers and children respondents.

Only one child from the controlled area was found with a high level of arsenic.

Maramba said they suspect that the child may have acquired the arsenic from the villages exposed to the substance.

Maramba said headaches, confusion, sleepiness and convulsions are only some of the effects of arsenic poisoning.

Affected individuals also experience vomiting, diarrhea, kidney, liver and lung problems.

But the long-term effect of arsenic poisoning is cancer, according to her.

During the study, Maramba said they found that mothers in the six villages have facial lesions, Mee's lines, skin lesions, gingival lines, retracted membranes, hyper-pigmentation and skin rashes. These things were not present in mothers from the control village.

Engineer Anna Rivera said aside from toxic levels of arsenic in the residents, they also found that the level of arsenic in the soils of four of the six study barangays -- Mua-an, Meohao, Matingaw and Sayaban -- was high.

The United States standard for arsenic in the soil is only 0.09 milligram per kilogram of sample. But samples, such as from Mua-an, showed that the arsenic level reached 4.87 milligrams.

Rivera said there was also high concentration of arsenic in the air of Mua-an.

But the team said it could not conclude if the high level of arsenic in the study area was due to the presence of the geothermal plant.

Rivera explained there are three possible sources of arsenic.

"It could naturally occur especially in volcanic areas, or caused by pesticides and could be caused by the geothermal operation of the PNOC," she said.

Banned chemicals

But Maramba said pesticides could be the least possible source of arsenic poisoning in the area because farm chemicals containing the element had already been banned since 1978.

She said the team was not discounting the possibility that the state-owned power generation company was to blame.

With the findings, the PNOC, through its environmental superintendent Ferdinand Santos, said they were willing to cooperate so that an "objective" study to find out the source of arsenic contamination could be conducted.

But then, he said that PNOC has been very strict in the operation of the power plants that it was constantly ensuring a zero-waste water discharge.

It also has a program to protect the area's forest cover.

Santos pointed out that these efforts won the PNOC the 1995 Gawad Kalikasan for most Outstanding Achievement in Environmental Impact Assessment by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Santos believed that the "high concentration" of arsenic as found in the study area is naturally related as arsenic is naturally occurring in volcanic areas.

"I'm sorry to make the PNOC as the marker but we are not (directly) saying that it is the source," Maramba said.

Source: dated 31 August 03

Death by chemical never know that you're being killed slowly...

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