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Essential to work towards a safer, healthier environment for everyone

The New Straits Times, November 25, 2001

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

TOWARDS the close of the 20th century, the issue of chemical safety was already occupying prominence in the arena of health, particularly in developed economies, where there is a greater awareness on the dangers of chemicals.

But the same cannot be said for the developing countries, with disease linked to environmental degradation.

Lifestyles were altered, though not in any meaningful way.

Thus, as we leave the 20th century, we often find ourselves on the brink of potential medical and health distress because our basic understanding of health issues and the practices have not changed very much, including on issues that relate to chemical safety.

Take a look at the use of pesticides, for example. Over the past few years, with their increase in use, it has resulted in many related health problems. We have to admit these are largely man-made, and exacerbated by elements introduced into our environment and then our bodies, sometimes unknowingly.

Aside from occasional and unfortunate contamination, pesticides are frequently implicated in suicides. Hence the problems are indeed multifold.

Still, there are many other man-made problems that could be construed as modern-day hazards, some of which are haunting our very existence.

Recall the dumping of more than 40 drums of cyanide at the Pangkor resort island just a few years ago in 1995. This happened out of a sheer callous attitude and irresponsible behaviour. Thousands of lives were threatened then.

Indeed, there is no denying that risks lurk in every corner. Even on a less lifethreatening situation, this is so. Inhaling seemingly harmless pollutants from the air could mark the beginning of a more serious asthmatic attack.

Taken at its most basic conceptual level, toxicology means poisoning. And poisoning takes place in all kinds of places and settings, affecting all types of people of all ages, and resulting in different levels of negative health patterns, from slight discomfort to serious morbidity.

It is a fact that today, poisons of all imaginable kinds surround us or are within ready reach. We are seemingly helpless. That our wellness is threatened from all sides is a reality. Coupled with the inflow into the market, in staggering numbers of artificial or man-made pollutants and contaminants, the very core of our well-being, indeed existence itself, is being placed in jeopardy.

Most threatened are two important elements in our universal life-support system, namely water and air. Yet, we often talk blithely about the bounty of water and air, a bounty unappreciated because we have taken it for granted. Water has always been life-giving and rejuvenating. Now, it is prone to pollution.

Similarly, air is life. Now, air too is tainted and even inhaling it can become an act of danger, especially at the peak of the haze that engulfed much of Southeast Asia in the late 1990s. To say that we live in perilous times no longer sounds that dramatic. The price that we have to pay in health terms is indeed enormous.

In the attempt to better the situation, scientists, environmentalists and health professionals alike make risk judgments and decisions each day, exploring the fine balance between the benefits of one form of action against potential liabilities and this is often not as easy as it sounds. The current anthrax attack demonstrates this point, what else with smallpox.

Eventually, whatever recommendations they arrive at, adverse risks are invariably there, to be balanced against the potential benefits of their prescriptions. As consumers and citizens too we can also make, to some extent, similar calculated risk judgments as long as we are able to take into consideration the various major factors involved.

For this to happen public health education and free access to the relevant information are imperative, for in cases of poisoning the decision could be dicey.

To say that for every illness, there is a cure is a fallacy. And to hope that for every malady, there is a remedy still remains the common person's dream. Hence, every one of us must take the responsibility of looking after our own health and safety, and learn as much as possible to take control of these processes.

By all means consult the professionals and experts, but do not abdicate your responsibility to them. In so doing the dream for a better and safer world perhaps is one more step closer.

o The above is the first part of the writer's keynote address at the The Third International Conference of Asia-Pacific Association of Medical Toxicology on Nov 12. Final part appears next week.

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