The three fish samples that were submitted to an independent laboratory for tests by the New Straits Times Probes Team.
A man catching fish in Sungai Pengorak in Kuantan. Pic by Aliza Shah

KUANTAN: DO not consume fish or other seafood from water sources contaminated with bauxite and its residue!

Public health experts have warned those here that the water sources where bauxite had seeped in
were heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals, some with carcinogens.

The desperate call stemmed from the independent laboratory test results commissioned two weeks ago by the New Straits Times Probes Team on live fish samples obtained from Pantai Pengorak and Sungai Pengorak here.

Tests were conducted for metal concentration in fish from the Gebeng coastal area that had been contaminated with bauxite.

The NST received the test results late on Monday and were shocked by the readings.

The most disturbing reading was the arsenic level. The Food Regulation 1985 states that the permissible level for arsenic in fish and fishery product is 1mg/kg.

The mean reading for arsenic in the three fish samples that were submitted for the test was 101.5mg/kg, very much higher than the permissible level.

In the first sample (Fish 1), the trace of arsenic was at 70.8. Fish 2 registered 93.2, while Fish 3 was at a staggering 104.5.

“We don’t eat fish by the gramme. Imagine the levels of carcinogens being consumed in one serving,” said a scientist assisting the Probes Team in analysing the results.

Environmental health expert Professor Dr Jamal Hisham Hashim said the public should avoid consuming seafood harvested from the area as the high concentration of arsenic in them could cause cancer.

“The level of arsenic is way above the permissible limits and this poses a danger to those who consume them or are exposed to the contaminated water.

“Arsenic and nickel are two elements that can cause cancer.

“The concentration of these heavy metals would be higher in fish that had been in the water for a longer time,” he said. (The fish that were obtained as samples were only the size of a palm.)

“Contaminated smaller fish that are fed on by larger species would also result in increased levels of toxicity in the larger animal.

“This is because the larger animal is not only being contaminated through its exposure from the water, but also from the heavy metals in the smaller fish that they feed on.”

Jamal said the state government must move in quickly to mitigate
the risks the public here are facing.

It is crucial, he said, that the Department of Environment and state Health Department establish the source of contamination and issue
a red alert to fishermen to stop fishing in areas contaminated with bauxite.

The authorities, he said, must make sure that the fish were not sold to the public as they would not be able to tell whether the fish were contaminated or not.

“As long as the reading for heavy metals in the areas remains above the permissible level, fish and other seafood sourced from the areas cannot be sold or consumed,” he said.

The lab results also showed high traces of other heavy metals, including iron, zinc, copper, nickel and lead.

This startling find by the NST Probes Team showed how pollution from unsustainable bauxite mining here is exposing residents to health risks that go beyond dusty roads — from radiation poisoning, to the dangers posed by carcinogens in the water sources and food chain.

Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water can cause cancer in the skin, lungs, bladder and kidneys.

It can also cause other skin changes, such as thickening and pigmentation.

Exposure to arsenic by inhalation can also cause lung cancer. The likelihood of cancer is related to the level and duration of exposure.

Exposure to nickel can result in lung, nose, larynx and prostate cancers.

Other health risks include lung embolism, respiratory failure, birth defects, asthma and chronic bronchitis, heart disorders and allergic reactions, such as skin rashes.

Meanwhile, environmental experts who expressed their concerns about the lab results said the state government must be transparent in publishing its analysis of heavy metals, which it publicly said had been carried out.

“Those with knowledge will know that high levels of heavy metals found in marine life contaminated by bauxite will automatically mean that the water is highly-contaminated.

“We are curious to know as they had earlier declared the water to be safe,” said one expert based here, adding that even if the water turned clear from the reddish colour that it was, the fish there could not be consumed as they would still have traces of heavy metals in them.

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