For years people in Malaysia—and several neighboring countries, for that matter—have turned rivers into their own personal garbage bin. The government’s clean up programs are basically pointless, as trash keeps accumulating not long after the rivers cleared. The blackened and clogged up river has become such a common sight that nobody really thinks much of it, until something monumentally disastrous happens.
Two weeks ago, over 3,000 people in Malaysia’s industrial town, Pasir Gudang, which is located in the Johor district, sought for medical treatment after being exposed to hazardous fumes from toxic chemicals that were dumped into a nearby river. Yesterday, the Malaysian police arrested nine suspects who are linked to the chemical dumping.
It all started on March 7, when students and staff from two different schools were rushed to the hospital after reporting breathing problems and nausea. The two schools are located roughly half a kilometre away from the disposal site. Over the week, the number of people being treated for the symptoms increased steadily. As many as 111 schools, including nurseries, within the Johor district have been temporarily closed.
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On March 18, education minister Maszlee Malik said that schools won't open until March 30, after the scheduled school break.
“The ministry is following the advice by these agencies so all schools in the district here will continue to be close until the school holidays,” he told local media.
Malaysia’s Department of Environment investigators identified that the type of waste found in the river is an oil commonly used to lubricate ship engines. The oil then emitted methane and benzene fumes, polluting the river. Up to 40 tonnes of the toxic substance is believed to have been dumped into the river. Exposure to high levels of methane gas can be deadly, though fortunately, no one has died.
Today, the number of people being treated in the hospital for methane exposure has gone down significantly. By last Sunday, only 29 people were left in the hospital. This was down from 120 people the day before.
The military and toxic waste experts have been investigating and cleaning up the river in Pasir Gudang, and reports say the situation is becoming more stable. Volunteers have also been working around the clock to make sure the pollution is contained.
"Some 28,000 litres of waste matter has been removed by two suction tank lorries, and is currently being stored pending disposal," Hee-Loy Sian, executive council in charge of the environment, told the Straits Times.
More waste dumping sites were discovered today not far from Pasir Gudang. Upon learning that four to five rivers in the Selangor district were also polluted, its ruler, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, said the state government must initiate more serious enforcement against those responsible for releasing such waste into rivers.
"If there is a need, laws must be formulated to impose heavy punishment on those guilty of polluting rivers in Selangor," Sultan Sharafuddin told the Strait Times.
This isn’t the first time a ruler or government official has called on harsher punishments for water polluters. Similar call to actions have been made years ago, to no avail.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.