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New Documentary Raises Arsenic Alarm

In “Born Sweet,” a new documentary underscoring the dangers of arsenic, a rural Cambodian boy struggles with questions of fate after he is poisoned by a contaminated well.

The 28-minute film, produced by American Cynthia Wade, follows a skinny and pale boy named Vinh as he struggles with his poisoning, as well as other diseases, parasites and malnutrition.

Many of Vinh’s neighbors in Kandal province’s Prek Russey village also suffer from arsenic poisoning.

“Too many people have died,” Vinh says. “I am afraid I will be next.”

The film won honorary mention at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah last month.

Wade, an Oscar winning director, said she became interested in the arsenic issue after learning about the work of Resource Development International’s Cambodia office.

RDI-Cambodia uses a mobile karaoke van to help educate people about the poison, which contaminates well water and threatens an estimated 137 million people in 70 countries worldwide.

“My hope with this film is that the issue of arsenic in the water is out there on the table and that, internationally, countries can begin to address this problem for Cambodia, for Bangladesh, for Vietnam, for Thailand,” Wade told VOA Khmer. “The government [of Cambodia] needs to acknowledge it, needs to put funding behind it, and the government needs to work with groups like RDI, work with international groups, so that mass poisoning stops.”

Seven Cambodian provinces along the Mekong river have been identified as at risk for arsenic contamination, according to Mao Saray, director of the Ministry of Rural Development’s water supply department.

“The government has come up with a solution to address the arsenic problem by providing alternative water sources like rainwater harvesting, shallow wells, community piped water systems and household treatment to treat surface water because some underground water sources are problematic,” he said.

Approximately 140 families totaling more than 300 people in Kandal and Prey Veng provinces were identified with symptoms of suspected arsenic poisoning in 2006, according to Unicef. Since then, no other suspected cases have been reported.

Hilda Winarta, a Unicef water and sanitation specialist, said the UN agency is working with Cambodia on several activities to mitigate arsenic risks. This includes testing and marking wells that are the most dangerous.

“Approximately 2.2 million people live in the areas that have been identified to be at risk of arsenic contamination,” Winarta said in an e-mail.

In “Born Sweet,” young Vinh dreams of becoming a karaoke star. Eventually, the people of his village gain access to safe drinking water. Unfortunately, the poison in their bodies remains.