Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Ice Factory Ordered to Suspend Operations After Causing Sickness

A man drives his motorbike past the ice factory on September 4, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
A man drives his motorbike past the ice factory on September 4, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Phnom Penh authorities suspended the operations of an ice factory after an ammonia gas leak last Friday caused more than 30 people living nearby to experience severe sickness from the exposure.

The primarily ethnic Cham residents of Russey Keo district’s Kor village in Chrang Chamres 2 commune are demanding the factory, Chheang Mu, change locations after they survived what they said was a traumatic and life-threatening experience. Some, like Leop Ahshimas’ family lived about 100 meters away from the factory

“With the ammonia gas I could not breathe and I could not open my eyes, and I did not expect to be alive,” said Ahshimas, 38. “I told my aunt I was dead before her, and I did not hope my son and I were alive.”

Ahshimas said she could not afford to go to the hospital but that her four-year-old son still had a headache.

“I do not ask for any compensation, I just ask the owner of the ice factory to be more careful,” she said.

Ammonia, a strong smelling, colorless gas commonly used in industrial production can have significant health impacts, according to England’s Public Health department.

“Breathing in low levels of ammonia may cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. High levels of ammonia may cause burns and swelling in the airways, lung damage and can be fatal,” the department stated

A vendor near the factory told the reporter that ” Like me are not affected much, just smell bad because the wind blows below.” The victims are the villagers living across the road to the bottom that take to hospital suddenly is a group 6 village Kor.

Russey Keo District Governor Ek Khundoeurn said authorities will ensure the factory’s owner has fixed the problem before allowing the factory to resume operations.

“In the case of the relevant ministries or departments or experts, they check that the factory owner has set up the correct system so that the factory owner can reopen,” Khundoeurn said.

Chhea Layhy, the director of the industry ministry’s General Department of Small and Medium Enterprises and Handicrafts (SME Department), said that the ammonia storage steel pipe had been in use for a long time and had become exposed to rain, corroding and causing a leak. 

“All steel pipe valves, if used for a long time, will get old,” he said. ” When it is exposed to the rain and the pressure it will leak.”

One affected villager living near the factory, Sen Nafi, said she experienced “dizziness, headache, and vomiting,” and loss of sight during the exposure, and urged the factory to move to another area in the future.

“If the factory owner wants to continue, they have to be careful and if possible the factory owner should relocate​ but we will give them one or two  years to replace the factory,” she said.

Khundoeurn, the district governor, said that the factory owner needed time to find a new location and build a new factory. 

“The factory owner promises to find a new location, but it takes time to build or prepare, not a day, a week, or a month,” he said.

He added that if the factory leaked again, the authorities would close the business completely and the owners would face legal action. 

Chheang Mu, the owner of the ice factory sharing her name, could not be reached for comment and a man who identified himself as her husband, reached by phone, directed CamboJA to her statements to local news earlier this week.

Mu told the China-Cambodia Times on Tuesday that she could not relocate within a year, requesting five years to move. 

“First, I do not have land. Second, building a factory requires a lot of money. Third, I owe the bank, I have to pay every day,” she said. “If it is limited to three months, six months, or a year, no one can do it. If there is, it is only illegal business, but every day I do legal business.”

At her home just across the street from the factory, Him Saras, 58, said the factory had already leaked several times before and after the most recent leak she fainted and was rushed to the hospital.

“I am really worried about my health after I got affected, I nearly died because of the issue and I want the factory to move to another place,” Saras said. 

Him Saras recounts the impact of the gas leak on September 4, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

She recalled that on the evening of the gas leak there was a bad smell, strong like hair dye, and then she felt numb and began to lose sight as she heard people crying out. 

“I began to have chest tightness and difficulty breathing, dizziness and fainting,” she said.

Her husband San Slaiman, 60, and some of their children and grandchildren, who lived with them, were also affected and sent to hospitals for treatment. As he recovers from the exposure which he said affected his already diminishing health, Slaiman said he has been unable to provide for the family as a fisherman.

“I can’t go fishing and I still have difficulty breathing and my eyesight is failing,” he said. “It is very difficult when this happened to my family and other villagers, we almost died with the other families.”