KUALA LUMPUR, March 14 — As of today, the illegal dumping of toxic waste into Sungai Kim Kim in Pasir Gudang, Johor has forced the closure of all 111 schools in the area and made 506 people sick.

Out of those, 166 people have been admitted into hospital while nine of them are critical. No deaths have been reported as yet.

A budget of RM6.4 million to handle the clean up the 1.5-km stretch of the river has been approved, Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin announced yesterday.

She added that the Department of Environment (DOE) has licensed a company to begin the clean up that was to start last night. Two more contractors will be assigned to the task to speed up the process.



What are the toxic chemicals?

The DOE investigators have so far identified the chemicals as marine oil waste, which is usually used to lubricate marine engines. The oil emits flammable methane and benzene fumes.

Johor DOE director Datuk Mohammad Ezzani Mat Salleh told Malay Mail between 20 to 40 tonnes of the waste was dumped into the river.

Several unverified news reports by Media Prima outlets such as New Straits Times and Berita Harian also listed down other compounds such as acrylonitrile and acrolein, in addition to hydrogen chloride, toulene, xylene and limonene.

Yeo was quoted saying authorities have identified at least eight of the chemicals based on their sampling, but there are still unknown chemicals.

When was the waste dumped?

Initial investigations by Johor DOE found that a tanker lorry had dumped the chemicals into the river on March 6, over a week ago.

The first 103 victims were reported the day after on March 7 and 106 more victims were affected on March 11.

The third wave happened on March 12, this time 60 people fell sick. By yesterday, a total of 506 victims were recorded.

Where was it dumped?

The waste was dumped under a bridge connecting Taman Pasir Putih and Taman Kota Masai.

The location was just roughly half a kilometre away from the first affected schools: SK Taman Pasir Putih, and SMK Pasir Putih.



Why are these chemicals toxic?

Exposure to high quantities of methane reduces oxygen levels in the body and can result in organ damage, including to the brain and heart, as noted by the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety. Methane gas can also irritate the eyes.

Benzene, on the other hand, causes cell dysfunction, according to the United States’ Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For instance, it can alter blood levels of antibodies; leading to the loss of white blood cells, causing damage to the immune system; and preventing bone marrow from producing enough red blood cells, which can lead to anemia.

Acrylonitrile in particular is extremely dangerous as it is highly flammable and toxic at low doses. The flammable material releases fumes of hydrogen cyanide and oxides of nitrogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies it as a Class 2B carcinogen — or “possibly carcinogenic”.

The CDC said hydrogen cyanide impedes the normal use of oxygen in almost every organ of the body, and can be deadly. It affects all bodily systems especially organ systems sensitive to low oxygen levels: brain, heart and blood vessels, and lungs.

Both acrylonitrile and acrolein are strong irritants for the skin, eyes, and nasal passages, said the CDC and Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry.



Who is responsible for the atrocities?

On March 11, Johor DOE said it detained two factory owners and a worker who are all in their 50s, who a day later verbally admitted their involvement. They have yet to be named by authorities, pending their charges in court.

An illegal factory owner who was supposed to be charged at a Magistrate’s Court in Johor this morning under Section 34B of the Environmental Quality Act 1974, but the prosecution has since postponed the case pending further investigation.

Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Osman Sapian said yesterday that a task force, consisting of several related agencies and departments, has been tasked to investigate the root cause of the pollution.



How can one prevent exposure?

So far Yeo, the Johor Health, Environment and Agriculture Committee chairman Dr Sahruddin Jamal and the Ministry of Health have urged the public to be extra careful on matters regarding health and safety. They offer the following advice:

1. Do not enter the affected area and avoid taking part in recreational activities near Sg Kim Kim, as the toxic chemicals can spread depending on the temperature, wind speed and weather conditions.

2. These toxic substances are very dangerous, so don’t take this matter lightly and make sure to take precautionary steps to ensure your safety and health. Instructions by Fire and Rescue Department of Malaysia suggest the use of appropriate protective equipment.

For instance, if one of your family member is affected, don’t wash his or her clothes with those of the rest of the family, as the toxic chemicals can transfer to other clothing items.

3. If you experience any symptoms that include nausea, shortness of breath, eye irritation and chest irritation, get immediate treatment.

4. Public citizens are also advised to follow instructions of the authorities and be informed of the latest information on the matter. Do not listen to sensationalised, false information.