Environmentalists Discover Arsenic in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 3 June 2015

RANGOON — Arsenic has been found in the groundwater around Rangoon’s biggest industrial zone, the director of the environmental rights group Eco-Dev, Win Myo Thu, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.

Since 2013, Eco-Dev has been checking the water quality inside Hlaing Tharyar. After a recent survey, their results indicated high levels of arsenic in the groundwater, which is discharging into the Pun Hlaing River.

“We’ve tested the river’s surface water quality to see if it contained arsenic and we found it there as well as in the groundwater,” Win Myo Thu said.

Within the industrial zone, there are 600 factories employing more than 60,000 workers. Most factories discharge untreated wastewater into drainage systems, where it then flowsinto the river along with sewage. This water often contains chemicals used inthe factories, which produce garments, paint, electronics and home appliances.

Arsenic can occur naturally in minerals and metals, but its compounds are also used in the production of pesticides, treated wood, herbicides, insecticides and was also once used in paint.

“Arsenic can be found within the earth, so we will have to continue to do more surveys to find out whether this arsenic came from the ground or from factories,” Win Myo Thu said. “If it comes from the factories, this is dangerous. We will have to do something about it.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), arsenic is one of the top ten chemicals causing major health concerns today. A 2007 study by Cambridge University researchers found that more than 137 million people in at least 70 countries have been affected by arsenic in their drinking water.

The minimal lethal dose in adults is estimated to be 70 to 200 milligrams (0.002 to 0.007 ounces), or rather, linked to an individual’s size: 1 milligram of arsenic per kilogram of body weight, per day. The WHO defines safe exposure as 0.01 milligram of arsenic per liter of drinking water.

“We have found that the arsenic levels here are higher than the WHO’s standard amount,” Win Myo Thu said.

Myat Thin Aung, the chairman of Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone, said that factory owners should undergo awareness training about the environmental impacts of industry and the corresponding health problems, but the management committee does not require such trainings as a mandate.

“I have suggested that factories should set up water treatment machines. There should also be a central system for all of the factories to treat their waste water,” Win Myo Thu said.

Over the last three years, the Myanmar Medical Research Department has conducted surveys to measure arsenic levels in the Irrawaddy Delta and Bago Division.

“Arsenic can be found mostly in water. Rangoon is part of the Irrawaddy Delta region, and arsenic is found in delta areas,” Dr. Than Htut, a public health physician, told The Irrawaddy. More than 12,000 people were tested during the survey, but only four were found to be suffering from probable cases of arsenic poisoning, he explained.

According to Dr. Than Htut, those suffering from exposure to arsenic may suffer from skin diseases and serious illnesses years later. “Significant diseases don’t show up in the short term, but in the longterm, and it is linked to various cancers.”

“Studies by the government and by other groups like Eco-Dev suggest that the river’s water quality is not good,” Dr. Than Htut said. “We need to study more about the impact of arsenic in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone.”

The first environmental awareness seminar on the impact of groundwater arsenic took place this week in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone’s Kanaung Hall. It was arranged for the factories by Eco-Dev and the zone’s management committee.