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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Recycled Prostheses

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: In the 1970s, Cambodia's ruling faction, the Khmer Rouge, put more than a million land mines along the nation's northern and western borders. The intention was to stop Cambodians from fleeing into neighboring Thailand. The Khmer Rouge is no more, but few of the mines they left behind have been cleared away. And each year those mines maim and kill hundreds of people. Most of those who survive do not have access to affordable prostheses. But a solution has been found through an innovative recycling program in Thailand. Orlando de Guzman has our report.


DE GUZMAN: Every day at the Thai border town of Aranyanya Prathet, about 10,000 poor Cambodians cross a narrow concrete bridge dividing Thailand and Cambodia. The tide of people swells by mid-afternoon. Dozens of carts piled with sacks of rice and scrap metal are pushed across the border. This border crossing is also where you'll see the legacy of Cambodia's 30 years of war. Hundreds of land mine victims come here to work. Many find jobs as porters hauling heavy sacks of clothing and food back to Cambodia. Sitting in a pool of shade, Sammath, a 44-year-old porter, takes a break from the afternoon sun. He says he remembers the day he lost his left leg.

SAMMATH: Speaks in Cambodian.
TRANSLATOR: It all happened on the twentieth of November 1990. I was a soldier with the Cambodian government, and our platoon was told to chase a group of Khmer Rouge guerillas hiding out in the jungle just across the border. We were walking down a dirt road when I hit a tripwire. That's all I can remember.

(A motor starts up)

DE GUZMAN: Sammath says he thought he would never walk again. Then he heard about a charity here in Aranyanya Prathet that was helping land mine victims. He signed up for the service, and, along with 200 others, got an artificial limb last year. He rolls up his left cuff to show off the prosthesis.

SAMMATH: Speaks in Cambodian.
TRANSLATOR: With this new leg, I can carry up to 65 pounds and make a living that way. Before, I couldn't work or do anything. Now I can walk, even run. I still have to be careful and not put too much pressure on my legs. I can't carry 100 pounds like the other porters who have both legs.


DE GUZMAN: Sammath owes his new leg to an innovative program in Thailand that is recycling cheap and readily-available plastic and aluminum and turning them into useful prostheses. In the outskirts of Bangkok, aluminum cans are processed and molded into parts for artificial limbs.

THERDCHAI: These prosthetic parts are made in our country, and all of them are plastic and aluminum.

DE GUZMAN: Dr. Therdchai Cheevaket is the man behind the program. He is the founder of the Thai Prosthesis Foundation, and he's an orthopedic surgeon at Chiang Mai University. The foundation has distributed about 7,000 artificial limbs to land mine victims since 1995, says Dr. Therdchai as he examines one of his first inventions.


THERDCHAI: This is the artificial leg. It's a good-looking one for daily use now. If they want to go to work in the field, to go into the water, they can use this one. You see most of the Thai amputees, you know, they are farmers.

DE GUZMAN: Dr. Therdchai says he did not have a lot of money when he started his foundation. So he went looking for cheaper materials to lower the production cost of his artificial limbs. He found help from the Ajinomoto Company, which makes the popularly sweet Thai coffee packed in aluminum cans. Orchachai Atcharanukul, the manager of Ajinomoto's marketing department, started a recycling drive called "One Flip-Top Toward a New Step." Within a year, Mr. Orchachai says they had collected enough aluminum to make about four-and-a-half thousand artificial limbs.

ORCHACHAI: (Speaks in Thai)
TRANSLATOR: The main reason for the recycling campaign's success comes from the ancient belief of Thai people, which has origins in Buddhism. In Buddhism, if you do a good act, then good things will come back to you. The second reason is more recent. More and more people are being educated about the environment, and there is a growing awareness about the benefits that resource conservation has on our quality of life.

DE GUZMAN: In addition to aluminum, the Thai Prosthesis Foundation experimented with plastic. Plastic bottles litter most of Thailand's highways and markets. Dr. Therdchai discovered that most of the plastic bottles used in Thailand can be melted without heat, using a solvent. The melted plastic is then spun around a cast to create a prosthetic leg. The process is so simple that it can be made by trained technicians at local villages. Because it's made on the spot, amputees don't have to wait weeks for an imported artificial limb. Dr. Therdchai says until he started his program, artificial limbs remained beyond the reach of about 70 percent of all amputees along the Thai-Cambodian border.

THERDCHAI: The prostheses made in Thailand in the past is expensive. Because you have to import the material and parts of the prosthesis. So the poor cannot afford to buy it.

DE GUZMAN: An imported prosthesis costs more than $100, but the ones made of recycled material were five times cheaper. That's allowed Dr. Therdchai to give his artificial limbs away for free. Christian Brunner, the regional delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, says foreign aid agencies often overlook how important it is to keep the costs down.

BRUNNER: The problem is always with organizations. If they are active in prosthesis projects, they want to sell their own products. Like if an American organization would come, they would like to bring American technology and American products. The same with the Germans. And that makes the thing expensive. And this is, of course, the big problem for these countries.

DE GUZMAN: Imported prostheses are not only more expensive, but they must always be used with shoes. That meant breaking a well-guarded Southeast Asian custom of removing your shoes before entering a home. Dr. Therdchai solved that problem by making a small slot between the toes on his prosthetic feet so a rubber sandal can slip on and off without much effort.

THERDCHAI: You can use a sandal, you see? There's a grip in here. It's a hole between big toe and the second toe. Gives you grip on the parts of the sandal.

DE GUZMAN: This year, Dr. Therdchai plans to give away more than a thousand of his environmentally-friendly and culturally-appropriate artificial limbs. For Living on Earth, I'm Orlando de Guzman in Bangkok, Thailand.

(Music up and under: Rita Takashima, "Ito Okashi")

CURWOOD: You're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Anonymous, "Parakeets of Paraguay")



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