MANILA -- The Department of Health’s (DOH) office in the Mimaropa region is using “Telemedicine” in assessing the health of people believed to have been exposed to residues of mine tailings left behind by the 1996 Marcopper mining disaster.

Head of Marinduque’s provincial health office, Dr. Rachel Rowena Garcia, said in an interview with the Philippine News Agency (PNA) Tuesday that Telemedicine, or the use of telecommunications to diagnose and treat patients in remote areas, has been applied to residents of Mogpog and Boac in Marinduque.

"We are establishing data (to see) if we can trace some of the (patients’) conditions to heavy metals. We're also having health-risk assessment to see the (effect of) exposure to heavy metals through the years,” said Garcia.

She said these patients could have been exposed to six heavy metals found in their environment -- Lead, Mercury, Copper, Arsenic, Cadmium, and Chromium – possibly remnants of the mining disaster, wherein 1.6 million cubic meters of tailings from a Marcopper Mining pit were discharged into the Makulapnit-Boac river system, rendering it unusable and affecting people who depended on it for their livelihood. Residents also developed skin irritations and respiratory problems.

To track the patients, barangay health workers have been mobilized to conduct house-to-house visitations.

Through Telemedicine, patients and attending physicians at the Dr. Damian Reyes Provincial Hospital in Boac were able to consult experts at the East Avenue Medical Center (EAMC) in Quezon City for real-time diagnosis and treatment.

Two patients, who are suspected of having been exposed to Chromium, Copper, Zinc and Mercury, were among those diagnosed in the Telemedicine conference.

One of the patients, 63-year-old Tomas Mindoro from Barangay Tabigue in Boac, has for years been suffering from itchy skin and black spots have appeared on his left foot.

Mindoro recalled that he was constantly immersed in a river where Marcopper Mining operated when he was working in the construction of a bridge. He also said that his exposure to the river continued when he earned a living as a fisherman.

Having no money to see a doctor and find out what causes his skin condition, he said that for several years, he simply relied on soap and water to ease the severe itchiness.

"Sinasabon ko na lang (I was just washing the itchy area with soap and water)," Mindoro said, adding that he could not also afford to buy medicine.

In his old age, he also has to deal with chronic coughing and other diseases.

"Dapat po sana wala ‘yun (I shouldn’t be suffering from these illnesses)," he said, noting that helpless residents like him would not be suffering had they not been exposed to the river.

His daughter, Rea Ramonte, 33, said his uncle had the same condition before he died a year ago.

Ramonte said that so far, other members of their family have not suffered the same fate.

"Pinagbawal ko na lang po sa mga anak ko ang maligo dun sa river (I have forbidden my children from swimming in that river)," she said.

Like Mindoro, 77-year-old Sindolfo Jalimbawa, also of Tabigue, has the same black spots at the soles of his feet.

According to May Asther Semilla, a toxicology nurse at the Dr. Damian Reyes Provincial Hospital, a total of eight patients from Bocboc, Mogpog and Tabigue were scheduled to be interviewed that day through a Telemedicine conference.

Based on results of laboratory tests done by the EAMC last Feb. 27, at least two patients tested positive for heavy metal poisoning, specifically Lead and Mercury.

Follow-up assessments, to be done in cooperation with the EAMC and Batangas Medical Center (BMC) on Oct. 25-26, will cover possible patients residing in barangays Lupac, Catubugan, Mainit and Balimbing in Boac.

Under an agreement with DOH-Mimaropa, EAMC will do lab tests for patients suffering from heavy metal poisoning for free, while BMC will accept such patients for confinement. (PNA)