Casey Lee | June 2, 2011
A toxicologist has chastised Lynas for claiming ‘low’ radioactivity, saying the spewed residue is still a cancer-causing agent.
“We learn from history that infectious diseases that kill humans fast usually have a short epidemic time – for example, SARS which appeared in 1997 and disappeared fast too.
“That is comparable to Bukit Merah plant. But diseases that kill slowly are here to stay forever – for example, AIDS. And that is comparable to Lynas,” said MMA’s Dr Tee Hoi Poh.
In an article in the May issue of MMA News, Tee describes a frightening mix of radiation poisoning and contamination that will occur should the plant be built and operational.
“If it (alpha radiation) enters our body via eating or drinking or even breathing – as radon exist in the form of gas – the radiation can cause bone and lung cancers.
“When the water used to process the rare earth, reported to be the size of a few Olympic swimming pools, seeps into the underground water and finds its way to the sea, it may enter the food chain via seafood.
“Radon, another by-product of rare-earth processing, in its gaseous state, may enter the human body directly,” he warned.
Despite the lower level of radiation produced as claimed by Lynas, Tee said that once the plant was operational, it would produce 10 times more “thorium” (a radioactive by-product of rare earth processing) than the long-closed Bukit Merah plant.
“This could spell more trouble as the effect is only seen over a long period of time.
“It is even more difficult for future medical experts to prove an epidemiologic link, and to hold Lynas responsible in a court of law.
“More lives have to be sacrificed over a long period of time before we can see a clear trend emerging.
Tee is among several doctors who expect an uptick in illnesses and disabilities in Gebeng, Kuantan, the site of rare-earth processing plant.
The doctors are questioning the benefits of building such a plant that will be given a 12-year tax holiday as it brings in rare earth from Australia to be processed.
According to Dr Chong Jen Lim, who authored a paper entitled “What is Rare Earth”, exposure to thorium would lead to increased risk of liver diseases.
Chong drew on reports and articles quantifying the damage caused by rare-earth processing.
He said that a tonne of rare earth generates about 8.5kg of fluorine and 13kg of dust; up to 12,000 cubic metres of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid; about 75 cubic metres of acidic waste water and about one tonne of radioactive waste residue.
“If Lynas is able to process 22,000 tonnes of rare earth per year, it means it may produce about 24,000 tonnes of thorium, 2,244 tonnes fluorine, 3,432 tonnes of dust, 2.65 billion cubic metres of waste has and 19.8 million cubic metres of acidic waste water in 12 years.
“Where are we going to dump or store all this waste? What benefits do we get?” he asked.
China and the US, which are largest rare-earth producers in the world respectively, have admitted that rare-earth processing has caused serious illnesses to those living in the vicinity and has poisoned the environment.
‘Low’ a matter of perception
In May 2010, China announced a major crackdown on unregulated mines after it became clear that toxic waste has been released into the general water supply.
Even the biggest rare-earth production area, Baotou, China, which supplies about 60% of the rare earth in the world, has been blamed for contaminating water supplies and farmlands, Chong said.
In the US, the only American rare earths mine, Molycorp Complex in California, was shut down in 2002 when it was discovered that it was leaking radioactive fluid into the nearby desert.
Malaysia’s own case of a rare-earth mine operation in Bukit Merah, which was online from 1982 to 1994, has reportedly caused birth defects, miscarriages, and eight leukemia cases, within five years of its operation within a community of 11,000 people then.
Currently, the cleaning of radioactive waste in Bukit Merah is still ongoing and the estimated cost for this clean-up is more than RM1 billion.
A total of 11,000 truckloads of radioactively contaminated material was removed.
Dr Jayabalan A Thambyappa, general practitioner and toxicologist, said Lynas is being disingenuous by saying that radioactivity will be low.
The word “low”, he said, is just a matter of perception. “It’s still a carcinogen or cancer-causing agent.”
Jayabalan said he had treated victims of leukemia whose illnesses he had and others had traced to the old Mitsubishi Chemical refinery.