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Poisoning water
Mae Toen
By Ana Salvá
14 Aug 2014

Mae Toen is a small rural village located in the province of Lampang, 500 kilometres away from Bangkok. The village is close to a fluoride mine, and despite its closure 40 years ago, the nearby artificial lake where the water overflows during the rainy season has become polluted.

Having no other water supply, people of Mae Toen turned to the polluted lake for their needs. Three generations later, the village is still very sick and the symptoms can be seen – children may experience brain damage, deaf-mutism or slow brain development, while some of the older women have an enlarged thyroid gland on their necks, as did their parents before them.

"The problem we have is that in Mae Toen, the groundwater is used for eating and cooking, and this is contaminated with excessive amounts of fluoride," says Dr. Chatpat Kongpun, who works at the Ministry of Public Health Thailand. "Some of the younger generation still suffer health problems, but their problems are not as severe as those of the older people," he says.

Da, 64, works as a housekeeper in Mae Toen. She grew up with the habit of drinking from the lake, and when she was 34, she developed thyroid problems that have stayed with her all her life. Despite the awfully uncomfortable looking swelling in her throat, a condition called goiter, she still manages to work and spend time with her family.

"I have thyroid problems since some time ago, and I have become accustomed to it,” she says. I can work at home and it doesn’t hurt. I can go everywhere around the village.”

When her lump appeared, Da didn’t give it too much thought. She didn’t bother to go to the doctor because she already knew what was going on. When she was younger, she had seen a similar swelling on her mother's neck and the necks of other older villagers who had also drunk from the lake.

"My mother had the same lump as mine but smaller," Da says. "For the last 20 years the lump hasn’t grown. The doctor told me that they can remove it, but I won’t. I am weak and I could bleed to death."

In Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, the shortage of drinking water is a serious problem because it usually rains only in the monsoon season between May and October, making it not sufficient to supply people’s needs.

In 2003, the Rotary Club of D'Entracasteaux of Tasmania, Australia, mobilised to help solve the problems caused by fluoride in Mae Toen, introducing a water tank supply which provided the villagers with receptacles to store the rainwater.

Officially, nobody drinks from the lake anymore, but the supply may not be enough to get people through the dry season. “About 50 percent of pregnant women [still] suffered from iodine deficiency when I worked in the village last year”, said Pornithida Padthong, who was head of communications at UNICEF Thailand until 2013 and worked in Mae Toen, suggesting that people in the village may still risk drinking contaminated water today.