April 2, 2012
FMT LETTER: From Prof Dr Jamal Hisham Hashim, via e-mail
As a professor of environmental health with 18 years of experience conducting environmental impact assessment (EIA), health impact assessment (HIA) and health risk assessment (HRA) for various types of development projects in Malaysia, I’m deeply concerned with the uncertainty surrounding the potential health impacts of the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) Project in Gebeng, Kuantan.
I reserve my judgement as to the nature of public safety or danger LAMP will pose to the population at risk, as I believe that most of the existing technical documents I have reviewed do not allow me to make a definitive and quantitative judgement on its potential health risks to the public.
I have looked into the preliminary EIA (PEIA) report, the radiological impact assessment (RIA) report and the IAEA report. Yet, I remained unconvinced that the short and long-term health impacts on the affected human population have been adequately addressed and assessed.
In Malaysia, the accepted practice is to conduct a HIA within an EIA for a development project that is subjected to an EIA. Moreover, the HIA must be conducted by an HIA consultant who is registered with the Department of Environment. There is no indication anywhere that these conditions have been met for the LAMP Project.
A HIA is a methodological approach comprising the 4 basic steps of hazard identification, dose-response assessment, exposure assessment and risk characterisation. Risk characterisation is the determinitive step which allows us to assess human health risk either qualitatively or quantitatively. This can be done for both carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and non-carcinogenic health risk.
From what I can see, only exposure assessment was done for the LAMP Project which estimated both total external radiation exposure for workers and the public, in comparison to the accepted radiation exposure limits of 20 mSv/year for workers’ exposure and 1 mSv/year for public exposure. Due to the conservative approach taken in the RIA, some of these exposure assessments may actually have been overestimated.
However, it still fails to convince me on two counts. One, the radiation exposure assessment for the public was hypothetical, not site-specific and not targeted to the population at risk. Two, it did not proceed to the risk characterisation step which would have allowed the quantification of the risk of cancer amongst the population at risk.
A proper HRA and HIA could have answered the question of what is the lifetime risk of getting cancer amongst the residents of Taman Balok Perdana due to potential chronic (long-term) inhalation exposure to radon and thoron from the smoke stack emission as a result of the lanthanide ore processing, and that due to chronic ingestion exposure to uranium and thorium in the waste residues through contaminated drinking water and food consumptions. These are questions which besieged the minds of residents around Kuantan and fueled their fears of the project.
There are other outstanding health issues that I cannot adequately address here. Suffice to say that a proper HIA will be beneficial not only for the public, but also for LAMP, as well as all regulatory agencies concerned, in order to facilitate an informed decision-making process. Some other issues that come to my mind are whether the high groundwater table may also be contaminated by the waste residues?
Will the lanthanide cracking process in the rotary kiln which burns at a high temperature also produce hazardous heavy metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and nickel; the last 3 being also proven human cancer-causing agents. Obviously, this was not assessed by the RIA.
LAMP and the government owe it to the people of Kuantan to address their health concerns, whether their fears may be real or perceived. Scientific means should have been given precedence over political manoeuvres which have clouded an otherwise straight-forward environmental issue.
Local experts should have also been consulted instead of relying solely on foreign expertise. It would now be almost impossible to regain the trust of the people once your credibility is gone with the wind.
The writer is Professor of Environmental Health & Research Fellow, United Nations University-International Institute for Global Health