When we talk about industrial disasters, what comes to mind are the 1984 Bhopal gas leak tragedy from a pesticide plant in Madhya Pradesh, India, and the 1954 Minamata mercury poisoning disaster in Japan.
We may have to add the recent poisoning in Pasir Gudang to the list.
In the Bhopal tragedy, toxic gas from a pesticide plant leaked from storage tanks in the middle of the night. By the next morning, more than 2,000 people in the vicinity were found dead and thousands more in the following days.
According to reports, faulty plant design and pipes, safety devices, poor maintenance of tanks, lax storage safety procedures and negligent staff were among the causes. Those who survived suffer from respiratory, neurological, gynecological, psychological, genetic and ocular issues. The Atlantic magazine states that it is the world’s worst industrial disaster, and after three decades, survivors are still fighting to have the site cleaned up.
In the Minamata disaster, mercury poisoning affected thousands of people who consumed seafood contaminated by methyl mercury in wastewater. Methyl mercury was released from a chemical factory in Minamata. The high level of mercury in marine products caused neurological disorders, and sensory and auditory disturbances in people who lived near the contaminated area. The industrial pollution also resulted in environmental degradation, marine pollution and affected fisheries. The effects impaired low socio-economic groups and fishermen.
And, now, in the 21st century, we have this grim case of industrial pollution in Pasir Gudang, Johor. Initial reports stated that 2,775 people were affected by toxic fumes released from the illegal dumping of chemicals into Sungai Kim Kim. More than 100 schools remain closed at the time of writing. About 1,250 tonnes of soil, water and sludge samples had been collected from the river. Earlier, it was reported that 15 types of chemicals, including hydrogen cyanide, were found in air samples taken from the surrounding areas.
Efforts are underway to prevent another wave of toxic pollution. But the question remains — how did the dumping of chemicals escape enforcement?
Illegal discharge of factory waste is not new and has been going on for years. Many other rivers and numerous sites throughout the country have been polluted by industrial waste. Surely, we do not want another episode of chemical pollution to go wrong before we realise that it is too late for recovery efforts.
The effects of past industrial disasters should serve as powerful reminders that people usually end up paying the price for the irresponsible and unscrupulous acts of the callous few. Effects of industrial disaster is widespread. The need to enforce environmental safety procedures and implement preventive strategies cannot be understated. Because for as long as enforcement is not stressed upon and procedures are not followed, pollution will continue and the lives of the public will be under threat.
It is urgent to act now.
Dr S. Mathana Amaris Fiona