Hundreds of Malaysian schools close over pollution fears

Nicola Smith
Emergency workers investigate the source of the pollution - AFP

More than 400 schools in southern Malaysia have been temporarily closed this week when dozens of students fell ill after being exposed to chemical pollution for the second time in three months. 

The education ministry ordered some 100 government primary and secondary schools as well as 300 private kindergartens in Pasir Gudang, Johor state, to remain shut until Thursday after 75 pupils complained of breathing difficulties and vomiting. Four victims were hospitalised. 

The source of the pollution has not been identified but authorities have expressed alarm at the recurrence of sickness among young residents. 

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad described the pollution problem as “unfortunate” and that it should not have “happened again”, reported the Associated Press. 

He said on Tuesday that the authorities are still trying to identify the companies responsible and warned that stern action will be taken.

In March, schools in the same area were shut for days after up to 40 tonnes of toxic chemical waste was illegally dumped into a river and sickened more than 5,000 people who suffered breathing difficulties, chest pain and vomiting. 

Fire and rescue officials at the time identified at least 15 different types of chemicals, including the colourless and highly poisonous hydrogen cyanide. 

Four people, including two Singaporeans, from a tyre-processing factory in Johor were charged in court over the March incident.

However, the authorities say the waste from that event was cleaned up and the recent situation is unrelated.

Last week the Malay Mail reported that a scientific committee had been set up to investigate whether liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) could be the cause of the latest health scare after a school had reported an unusual smell before pupils fell sick. 

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has warned of stern action against those responsible for pollution Credit: Lai Seng Sin/Reuters

A local councillor assured the public that Johor’s department of environment and the fire and rescue hazardous materials team were working around the clock to decontaminate the scene. 

The state government denied that it had been slow to react to the latest crisis. 

“From the very first day, the fire and rescue department, the department of environment, the chemistry department and the district office were among the agencies which worked to immediately handle the issue,” said Mohammad Khuzzan Abu Bakar, the health culture and heritage committee chairman.

According to Bernama, Mr Khuzzan said the state authorities would look into the need to set up a buffer zone between the industrial and housing areas to preventing similar incidents from happening in the future.

The recent crises in Johor highlight the Southeast Asian nation’s growing challenges in tackling harmful environmental pollution, some of which has allegedly been caused by illegal dumping. 

Last year a Telegraph investigation discovered that plastic waste from around the world was being dumped at sites in Kuala Langat, near the national capital, and openly burned, releasing toxic fumes that locals claimed was affecting their health. 

Fishermen tending ponds close to one site that still contained evidence of putrid charred waste claimed that the incineration of plastic products had made them feel sick and caused fish stocks to dwindle.   

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security