A carbon filter factory in Sungai Lembu, Bukit Mertajam. Pic by SHAHNAZ FAZLIE SHAHRIZAL.

GEORGE TOWN: Is the cancer incidence rate in Sungai Lembu, Bukit Mertajam, where an illegal carbon filter factory is operating for the past 10 years, 2,342 per cent higher than the national average ?

This is the poser raised by Barisan Nasional Strategic Communications deputy director Datuk Eric See-To following news reports on the matter.

He said regardless of whether activities at the factory had a link to the cancer cases, the Penang government owed the villagers in Sungai Lembu, in particular, and Penang, in general, an explanation on why the factory was allowed to operate illegally.

"This is especially since many had complained for years that it was hurting their health. The people's lives are at stake here," he said.

See-To said while many were still arguing whether it was proper for the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to arrest state executive council member Phee Boon Poh over the letters he wrote, asking to stop actions on the illegal factory or if the five-days remand granted was required or even Penanti assemblyman Dr Norlela Ariffin's lament that she was now treated like "a pariah or criminal" for daring to make complaints about the illegal factory, the piece of news on the cancer incidence rate caught his eye.

He said according to Norlela, which was later confirmed by state Health Department director Datuk Dr M. Sukumar, 11 of the total 500 villagers in Sungai Lembu had cancer.

"This translates to a cancer incidence rate of 2,200 victims out of 100,000 persons.

"According to the Malaysian National Cancer Registry Report 2007-2011, published by the National Cancer Institute, the national age standardised cancer incidence rates for males and females are 86.9 and 89.0 per 100,000 population in respectively.

"This means that the cancer incidence rate in Sungai Lembu is a staggering 2,342 per cent higher than the national average," he added.

See-To said that while the sample size in Sungai Lembu was small, and that there was no direct medical evidence that points to the illegal factory — which was burning 2,000 tonnes of sawdust monthly to make activated carbon — as the cause of the cancer, the high anomaly requires caution and further investigations.

"The authorities must also quickly investigate similar factories around the country to ensure that they meet with the Department of Environment (DOE) guidelines.

"Although the DOE found that this particular illegal factory did not have a proper air pollution control system, the chief minister was reported to have admitted that the state had issued directives to postpone enforcement action on the illegal factory.

"If this is true, and a link to the cancer can be ascertained, then the Penang government may be liable to be sued by the victims in Sungai Lembu, particularly those affected by cancer," he added.

Meanwhile, See-To said Norlela had also said that activities at the illegal factory were very dangerous, and that her son was taken to hospital for breathing difficulties after she brought him together during a check.

"More shockingly, Norlela said she had tabled five motions at the state legislative assembly sitting to highlight the illegal factory operations, and all were rejected," he noted.

The illegal carbon filter factory in Sungai Lembu was raided on Thursday by the MACC and other government agencies after numerous reports lodged with the authorities fell on deaf ears.

Dr Sukumar had told the NST that there were 11 cancer cases of which two were incidence of lung cancer.

"The cause of the lung cancer could not be ascertained, but none of the victims worked at the carbon filter factory.

"The factory is also situated at a remote place, and was not the main route taken by any of the victims to travel daily," he added.

On Friday, Phee, who is state Environment Committee chairman, was arrested when he went to the state MACC office here to have his statement taken to facilitate investigations into the illegal factory.

Later the same day, the factory's 70-year-old manager and his 37-year-old son, a director, were also arrested.

Yesterday, the magistrate's court granted the trio a five-day remand order, which expires next Wednesday.

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