Residents understandably fear the long-term effects of their exposure to the radioactive waste, writes Mustafa K Anuar.
It has been 30 years since Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE) set up its processing plant in Bukit Merah, Perak, which eventually became a living nightmare to nearby residents until today.
The controversial plant – a joint venture between Mitsubishi Chemical Industries Ltd, Beh Minerals, Tabung Haji and several bumiputera entities – generated radioactive waste that many experts deemed dangerous to human health.
Mitsubishi Chemical Industries reportedly decided to move its rare earth plant to Malaysia after the Japanese government suspended its operations at home – which implies that Malaysia was, and still is, perceived to be a convenient dumping ground.
As it is, several developed countries appear to have considered Malaysia as a suitable place to dump other kinds of waste as well – apparently guided by the not-in-my-backyard philosophy, judging by the tonnes of waste that found its way into the country lately.
Environmental destruction and human health are of primary concern when in the dumping of dangerous waste.
Although the Bukit Merah plant was finally shut down in 1992 after a 32-month court battle, it remains a source of fear and anxiety among the residents, given that the cancer-causing thorium contained in the waste has a half-life of 13.9 billion years. That sounds like an eternity, in effect.
A permanent storage facility for the several thousand tonnes of radioactive waste was constructed in 2015 at nearby Bukit Kledang, which is a grim reminder of the past ghost, especially for those who had to sustain emotional scars and suffer serious health issues.
For instance, babies suffered physical defects, and at least eight leukaemia cases were confirmed. Additionally, clinical tests conducted on the villagers showed that the lead content in children was much higher compared with that of other children.
Some of the children suffered from auto-immune diseases resulting from abnormal characteristics of their white blood cells, while at least 10 children were found to have brain cancer.
Pressed against such a backdrop, the residents understandably fear the long-term effects of their exposure, directly or otherwise, to the radioactive waste. They also wonder whether the level of radiation near the old plant is still within a safe range.
This explains why they wanted the authorities to investigate whether the residential area located in the factory’s vicinity is indeed safe for human habitation.
It is incumbent upon Perak, which rode on the wave of social change in the last general election, to provide immediate assistance to these people who suffered in so many ways for so long.
Measures should be taken to ensure that radioactive contamination has been reduced to a safe level, if not completely eradicated so that the residents can move on with their lives.
It is most unfortunate that they have to pay a high price for a business enterprise that was not of their own making, and one that intruded into their otherwise quiet life.
They deserve to have the basic rights to health safety, healthcare and, above all, happiness.
Moreover, a comprehensive study of the Bukit Merah area and its inhabitants by the Perak government would go a long way towards informing policymakers in future should the authorities decide to venture into such risky enterprises. The Lynas Advanced Material Plant in Gebeng, Pahang is a case in point.
The human tragedy in Bukit Merah should not recur. Any repeat of that would be sheer diabolical.