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We must be more aware of the risks of chemical use

The New Straits Times, March 17, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

WHILE chemical substances have always been associated with human survival since time immemorial (think of the naturally-occurring chemicals in nature), it was not until the industrial revolution that modern lifestyles became almost dependent on synthetic chemical substances — ranging from agrochemicals to drugs, from industrial and household chemicals to cosmetics.

Over the years, situations influenced by the use of chemicals have proved to be deadly in so many cases. More so in situations where the safeguards are relatively low. The deadly experiences of Minamata in Japan in the 1950s, and Bhopal in India and Chernobyl in Russia in the 1980s are among the classic cases. Malaysia had its fair share of classics too, the rice noodle (loh see fun) poisoning episode of 1987 and the Bright Sparkler factory explosion in the 1992, to name just two.

Even today as we plod along in the 21st century, the chemical nightmares of the previous millennium haunt us. The latest case is the use of chemicals (nitrofuran, chloramphenicol and beta-agonists) in animal feed in this country despite a Cabinet ban several years ago (NST, Feb 24).

According to the Health Ministry, samples tested positive for nitrofuran (which is carcinogenic) increased from one per cent in 1998, to 2.3 per cent in 1999, and almost quadrupled (3.7 per cent) in 2000.

At about the same time last month, a study revealed that some fruits growing in one location contained high levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead (The Star, Feb 23). Although this is disputed by those involved, reportedly the suspect substance, a white chemical powder, was obtained from a ‘licensed medicine shop' and used ‘to make the tree grow healthier' (The Star, Feb 24). Cases like these give the impression that there are Malaysians who are pushing towards the brink because our appreciation of the risks related has not changed.

This impression can only be reinforced from our experiences in dealing with agrochemicals, including Persistent Organic Pollutants. Over the past decade, in tandem with rapid national growth, the use of agro-chemicals has also been on an upward trend since the early 1990s.

It is important to reiterate in the context of chemical use that children are vulnerable to so many more substances, either in the home, at the industries or agricultural plots, even in schools. They are not ‘little adults' since they are still in a dynamic state of growth and development. Indeed, chronic and unknowing exposure to poisonous substances such as pesticides, household products, heavy metals, and even pharmaceuticals can lead to more permanent damage. Sometimes the reasons are more common that we think.

Earlier this week, in Bangkok, at the start of the Conference on Environment Threats to the Health of Children, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that environmental hazards like unsafe drinking water and indoor air pollution kill three million children every year.

Last year alone, some 1.3 million children under five died in developing countries due to diarrhoea-related diseases caused by dirty water and the lack of hygiene. And some 60 per cent of the 2.2 million deaths involving children are caused by acute respiratory infection annually. This is linked to indoor air pollution generated for example by fuel burning in an enclosed space.

This point is of special interest now that we are facing a spate of open burning throughout the country, so much so that the Department of Environment was forced to announce an immediate ban.

We seem to have forgotten that just a few years ago the nation was engulfed by the world's worst haze, due largely to open burning. And how difficult it was even just to breathe. It looks like no amount of law can make us change our ways.

Amongst the more developed communities, discussions and debates about how to reduce and avoid chemical-related dangers are greatly heightened. At the same time, tools like risk assessment are being developed to guide the community with better safeguards and means of protection. At the same time, decision-making is better supported by input from intelligence and vigilance based on research. All these, plus effective risk communication procedures, result in the situation being well under control.

Communicating the risk to the population is of vital importance to allow people to make informed decisions about their health.

As it stands today, to say that we have taken adequate precautions to protect our environment, food processes, water and air resources, in order to safeguard our health and that of our children is still but a dream far yonder. A dream that could more easily turn into a nightmare! * This is an excerpt of the writer's keynote address at the Sirim-Jica Seminar on "Risk Management Towards Sustainable Development" in Kuala Lumpur on March 5.

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