EARTH Thailand

Noxious Emissions: Doctors beg for funds to move hospital

The Nation 08 February 2007 | Pennapa Hongthong

Map Ta Phut medical staff fear for their lives after reports of high cancer rates

The alarming levels of cancer emerging in Map Ta Phut communities have sparked fear among Map Ta Phut Hospital medical staff who are waiting for the facility to be relocated away from the heavy-industry complex.

Though the culprits for the cancer and various diseases the villagers have suffered have yet to be named, hospital director Dr Surathin Maleehuan said he was afraid the same fate would happened to him and his staff if the hospital remained where it was.

The hospital opened in 1998, one year after Map Ta Phut Phanpittayakarn School was moved out due to air pollution.

It is situated quite close to the Map Ta Phut industrial estate, next to a toxic waste landfill site belonging to the Genco company.

The estate is one of the four industrial estates clustered in the Map Ta Phut industrial complex, which is comprised of almost 100 heavy industry factories.

The hospital, said Surathin, was designed to be an occupational diseases hospital to serve workers of the complex and the villagers of nearby communities. However, it had only limited capacity with just 30 beds due to a tight budget.

Surathin said every year six to seven doctors and nurses ask to be transferred because the industrial fumes are so bad. Unfortunately, he said, the transfers have to be turned down as he cannot find new staff to replace them.

He had asked the Public Health Ministry to move the hospital years ago, but the only answer he got was "no budget", until last year when the Rayong governor set aside Bt20 million for its relocation.

"We heard that a petrochemical-related factory that will emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) will be erected close to the hospital. What's there to stay for?" he said.

However, the Bt20 million budget is only enough to remove the Out-Patients Department (OPD) of the hospital.

Surathin said to remove the other departments would cost an additional Bt40 million. The OPD will be moved to its new location on Sukhumvit Road, about three kilometres from the current location, by the end of this year. "We know three kilometres will not help in avoiding the toxic air, but at least it is better than where we are now," he said.

The Pollution Control Department's air monitor data in 2005 showed Map Ta Phut air was contaminated with 40 VOCs, 20 of which are carcinogens including benzene which causes various types of leukaemia. The National Cancer Institute's study showed that the rate of cancer cases in Rayong's Muang district was higher than for other districts. Laboratory tests by the World Health Organisation in 1998 found the level of DNA damage in workers and residents of Map Ta Phut were higher than for people in other districts of the province.

Once relocated, the Map Ta Phut Hospital will be the second state agency to be moved due to air pollution discharged from the Map Ta Phut industrial complex. The first was Map Ta Phut Phanpittayakarn School.