PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The ‘Pearl of Asia’ label given to Phnom Penh one century ago no longer fits. Today, this urban landscape is disfigured by open sewage canals, trash piles, and rats.
Uncollected trash left curing in the tropical sun is not only unsightly. It is a public health threat that professionals say should be taken seriously.
Rats, we’ve All Seen Them
Because of uncollected garbage, rats have found their promised land, running from one trash pile to another in full view.
“Trash left in the streets is a big magnet for rats, which are vectors of uncountable infections and diseases,” Patrick Galmiche, MD, from the Cabinet de Médecine Générale of Phnom Penh, told Khmer Times.
“Rats’ fleas, for example, transmit the plague,” he continued. “Let’s not forget that this terrible disease has not been eradicated from the world. So the risk of a plague outbreak in Cambodia is a real possibility.”
Contact with infected rodents or their urine, droppings or saliva after a bite can lead to the Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, a potentially deadly disease with no known specific. Now, with the onset of the rainy season, possibilities of contamination grow.
Rats, Rubbish and Rain
“During the rainy season, floods increase the dangers,” said Alexandra Kerléguer, MD, head of the Medical Biology Unit at the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge.
“The proliferation of rats is a problem, as their urine can cause leptospirosis,” she said, referring to a bacterial infection spread from water contaminated with rat urine. “The waste can also contaminate air, water and soil leading to pulmonary infections.”
Moreover, rainwater that washes through garbage can eventually infect water supplies for drinking, washing food and irrigating crops.
Gavin Scott, MD, of the Tropical & Travellers Medical Clinic in Phnom Penh, explained in an interview that children play with garbage, poor or mentally ill people eat from it, and garbage re-cyclers handle it without gloves or masks. These dangerous practices can result in serious and at times fatal illnesses.
“Human skin contact can lead to cuts and skin diseases,” said Dr. Scott. “But the main problem is the increased likelihood of an outbreak of a diarrheal disease like typhoid or cholera.”
Burning Garbage Releases Dioxins
To get rid of garbage, many Cambodians burn refuse in backyards or by roadsides. Dr. Scott warned this practice releases hazardous chemicals into the air that endanger people’s lungs.
One pollutant from burning garbage is dioxin. This highly toxic chemical does not decompose. Instead, it builds up in the tissues of animals and humans.
The World Health Organization states: “Once dioxins have entered the environment or body, they are there to stay due to their uncanny ability to dissolve in fats and to their rock solid chemical stability.”
Dioxins can cause adverse effects on reproduction and development, suppress the immune system, disrupt hormonal systems, and lead to cancer.
A lack of citywide recycling, a lack of garbage cans, irregular collections, poor solid waste disposal, and a general laissez faire attitude, create real health hazards in a city that now is home to 2.2 million people, 15 percent of the nation’s population.
Will the “Pearl of Asia” shine bright again?
Or will its name be tarnished by piles of trash?
Garbage is often ‘stored’ on the streets of Phnom Penh. KT Photo: Fabien Mouret