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Will Malaysians Get Cancer for Your iPhone or Prius?

I went to the site of a notorious rare-earth refinery—and investigated plans for a new one—to find out.

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 7:00 AM EST

Next, Hew took us to the nearby home of Lai Kwan, a 69-year-old woman who worked as a contracted construction laborer at the plant while she was pregnant. She heard rumors around the plant that the materials it refined were dangerous, so she quit, worried about her pregnancy. But a few months later, her son, now 30, was born profoundly retarded and blind. He requires full-time care, so Lai Kwan hasn't been able to work. She worries about what will happen to him when she can't care for him anymore. "It's getting harder now," she said. "He's heavy, and I have arthritis." A few months ago, a local politician visited and promised to help. A local newspaper covered the story. But the politician hasn't followed up. "Every time I call she says she is too busy," she said, pointing to the picture of the politician and her son in the local newspaper.

Rela, 24, whose mother walked through Asia Rare Earth's ground's during her pregnancyRela, 24, whose mother walked through Asia Rare Earth's ground's during her pregnancyWhen we left Lai Kwan's house, Hew wanted to to introduce us to Rela (I changed her name at her request), a young woman from the local Tamil community. Hew explained that Rela's mother walked through the refinery grounds every day on her way to work while she was pregnant with Rela, and as a result, he said Rela has always had health problems. We finally tracked her down in the downtown Ipoh fabric store where she works. A petite 24-year-old, Rela is shy and giggles easily. Her coworkers, a trio of guys who seemed to have appointed themselves her bodyguards, stuck around to help translate. "I was in the hospital for 20 days as a baby," she said. "I get very bad headaches, and I cough up blood." She didn't know the name for her condition, but later, I called her physician, Dr. Jayabalan, who said she suffers from multiple congenital defects. "Her case isn't the worst, though," he said. He also treated the eight Bukit Merah children who developed leukemia, seven of whom have died.

Then there's Esso Man's drivers. All three died relatively young—not one lived past his fifties. Now, Esso Man suffers from a skin condition that causes white patches on his hands. Sometimes he thinks it might be related to his exposure to the waste, but, he says, it might just be stress. "I feel regret about working for that company," he says. "I feel bad that I gave people all that toxic waste. Even my own uncle."

We talked to a handful of other people, all of whom told us about friends who they said had developed health problems in the wake of the plant. We also visited the tiny nearby town of Papan, which basically consists of a few weathered houses, a mah-jongg parlor, and a handful of very cute old people, most of whom have kids who have long since moved away. Behind Papan, nestled in the rolling hills of the Kledang mountain range, is the final resting place for Asia Rare Earth's radioactive materials. In 2010, 28 years after the plant closed, Malaysian news media reported the discovery that the holding bins where the thorium was being stored were unsafe. Now Mitsubishi is building a new facility. "I am worried about the dump," said one 86-year-old widow we talked to on the town's main drag. But she doesn't want to leave, having lived in Papan her whole life. "I want to die here," she said.

Papan, the town nearest to Asia Rare Earth's dumpPapan, the village nearest to Asia Rare Earth's dump

I asked Hew whether the government could help the people that we had met. He told me that since there has never been an epidemiological study of the area, no one can technically prove that Asia Rare Earth's refinery caused the health problems. Even so, in its FAQ, Lynas makes a point of saying that its new rare-earth refinery will be "completely different to the Bukit Merah rare earths plant" and that "there are now much higher standards in place which mean Bukit Merah could never be repeated."

Still, part of Lynas' plan is to treat its waste—and then recycle the nonradioactive parts into building materials. Not everyone is convinced that the company will be able to make its waste completely free of radiation, or that it will be able to protect its workers from exposure during the refinery process. "I don't think this is realistic," said Chee Hong Lee, a Kuala-Lumpur-based chemical engineer who has been studying Lynas' plans.

I've been spending the last few days talking to others about the new plant, and I'll write more about that in my next dispatch. Stay tuned.

A dog I met in a village near Bukit Merah. He's smiling!A new friend I made in Papan

Reporting for this story was partially funded by a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

 

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