Perak rare earth worker’s son dies, piles pressure on Lynas
KUALA LUMPUR, March 30 — Cheah Kok Leong, the son of a worker at the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant in Bukit Merah, Ipoh, died last night, 30 years after being born with congenital defects his mother blamed on radioactive exposure.
His mother, Lai Kwan, had claimed she was pregnant with Cheah when working at the plant which was shuttered in 1992 due to public pressure over claims of radiation poisoning.Dr Jayabalan A. Thambyappa, a toxicologist who worked with Bukit Merah residents after they blamed the refinery for birth defects and eight leukaemia cases within five years, confirmed the death when contacted by The Malaysian Insider this morning.
Seven of the leukaemia victims in the community of 11,000 have also died.
But radiation regulator Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) has said it is unlikely that Lai’s child was born mentally retarded because of her exposure to radiation as nerve tissue is the most resistant to radiation.
Although there is no concrete proof that the plant, which is still undergoing a RM300 million cleanup exercise, contributed to Cheah’s condition, his death will likely add fuel to protests against another rare earths plant being built in Kuantan.
Lynas Corp has insisted its RM2.3 billion plant is safe with only low-level radiation waste being produced that the Australian miner says it will recycle into commercial products.
The project was on course for approval until the New York Times highlighted it a year ago, using the ARE plant as a cautionary tale.
The newspaper’s March 9, 2011 edition zeroed in on Lai’s story of how she decided to take up a better-paying job in the refinery.
Lai, now 70, told the NYT that while pregnant she was told to take unpaid days off when factory bosses said particularly dangerous consignments of ore were arriving.
“She has spent the last 29 years washing, dressing, feeding and otherwise taking care of her son from that pregnancy... she and other local residents blame the refinery for the problems, although birth defects can have many causes,” the daily reported.
The report galvanised local opposition to the Lynas plant, leading Putrajaya to call for a review by an international panel of experts in June the same year.
However, the AELB has since approved a temporary operating licence subject to a few conditions yet to be fulfilled that include finding a suitable waste disposal site.
But continued protests, backed by the federal opposition, have forced the government to form a Parliamentary Select Committee to study the project.
However, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has refused to participate in the panel, calling it an attempt to “whitewash” the alleged danger of radiation pollution from the refinery.