Monday, February 5, 2007

Deaths blamed on Map Ta Phut

by Pennapa Hongthong, The Nation

Former refinery employee says sister and some fellow teachers and students died from array of factory emissions.

A man who worked for three decades in an oil refinery company believes carcinogens discharged from the Map Ta Phut heavy industrial complex killed his sister who lived in the area.

Prem Panitchpattana, 62, said his sister Chanida Sakwattana, a former teacher at the Map Ta Phut Phanpittayakarn School, suffered from strange symptoms a few years after moving there in 1990. Chinada later developed lymphoma and died in 2004 at the age of 48.

"I am sure that volatile organic compounds in the air there killed her," said Prem, who worked at a leading international oil refinery in Chon Buri for 38 years.

Located in the Map Ta Phut sub-district of Rayong province, the school was adjacent to the heavy industry complex, amid almost 100 factories. Among the factories were 45 petrochemical plants, eight power plants - some fuelled by coal - two oil refineries, and 12 chemical fertiliser factories. The plant closest to the school was a refinery.

Prem said his company taught all employees about the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that are produced during the oil-refining process, their dangers, and how to prevent exposure to the compounds. Benzene was a prime suspect in his sister's death as it is one of the VOCs produced by the refining process, he said.

"Villagers nearby never knew about the chemicals that we, as the staff, were aware of," Prem said.

Benzene is listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as human carcinogen that can cause various types of leukaemia. Dr Sukit Banjongjit, a haematologist at Rayong Hospital, said lymphoma could be caused by the same groups of carcinogens that cause leukaemia as the two diseases are cancers that occur in the blood-forming system.

However, data from an air-monitoring programme by the Pollution Control Department showed that other carcinogens directly related to lymphoma also contaminate the air at Map Ta Phut. These carcinogens include trichloroethylene, 1,2-dichloroethane and carbon tetrachloride. The average level over a 24-hour period of all the four agents were found to be much higher than the acceptable levels set by US Environmental Protection Agency. (see graphic for detail)

Chinada took up the teaching job in Map Ta Phut after her husband got a job in a factory in the industrial complex. The couple stayed in Map Ta Phut sub-district. Prem said his sister fell sick and visited hospitals on and off since 1992, but the illness was never diagnosed. Then in 1997, the same year that teachers and students of the school suffered acute respiratory problems and needed hospitalisation, Chinada moved to a house in downtown Rayong, about 10 kilometres from Map Ta Phut, in the hope her health would improve.

Unfortunately, her health only got worse. Doctors said she had lymphoma and gave her numerous blood transfusions. Chinada then quit her job and moved to Bangkok where, according to Prem, her health was much better for a few years before her condition worsened again in 2003 and she passed away the following year.

While taking care of his sister, Prem realised that Chanida was not the only teacher at the school who was suffering from, or had died of cancer.

"Many times her fellow teachers visited us and talked about the deaths of their friends. Some of her friends could only visit her once because they died before her," he said.

The exposure of the school's students and teachers to toxic chemicals hit the headlines in 1997, and the same year the education minister allowed the school to be relocated to a site far from the industrial complex.

The record of cancer cases among those who spent time in the school was gradually disclosed to public.

In the past two weeks, The Nation had the chance to talk to a school alumnus who is now suffering from leukaemia. The 31-year woman has to constantly monitor her condition by checking her red blood cells every day. Once a healthy athletic woman, she is now confined to her home, under medication, and visits doctors twice a month. She cannot expose herself to strong sunlight or even do light work.

The woman said one of her former classmates had died from the same disease last year.

Dr Sukit of Rayong hospital said he had observed an increase in the number of Map Ta Phut residents visiting the hospital's haematology department. He said most of the leukaemia and lymphoma cases were caused by environmental factors, but there has so far been no research into the duration of their exposure to cancer-causing agents.

The doctor said the incidence of haematological cancers in Map Ta Phut convinced him that the area might have high levels of cancer-causing agents.

Prem said that once he realised his sister's sickness might have been caused by emissions from the industrial complex he started expressing his concerns at many public meetings, but his voice was never heard.

Having lost his sister, he is now closely monitoring news of Map Ta Phut and wants the area to be declared a pollution-control zone.

"I don't want new generations to suffer from the toxic emissions. Let my sister's death be the last," he said.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand, which oversees the Map Ta Phut complex, does not believe that the illnesses among people in the area are caused by the operations of factories in the complex.

"We should wait for the reports of two subcommittees of the National Environmental Board [NEB]," said U-thai Jantima, governor of the IAET, during a meeting on Friday with representatives of 25 communities surrounding the complex.

The NEB set up the two subcommittees in January to study the links between illnesses in the local population and pollution from the industrial complex.