I was quite appalled by what happened at Sungai Kim Kim in Pasir Gudang, Johor. It is such an irresponsible act to dump toxic waste into a river that is near human habitation, not to mention home to a lot of fish and aqua life. But what exactly is toxic waste?
Toxic waste is a general term that we use to refer to chemical compounds that are produced by industries. These compounds can cause physiological damage to humans and other living things if they are breathed in or ingested.
Toxic waste can also be called chemical waste. It is not only Malaysia, but the United States also has a major toxic waste disposal problem.
Where does toxic waste come from?
Many industries such as manufacturing (e.g. mobile phone, computer and television production), farming, automotive (e.g. car batteries), construction, laboratories and hospitals, produce by-products.
These by-products may contain radiation, chemicals, heavy metals and bacteria/viruses.
Toxic waste does not only come from industries. It can come from your household items, like pesticides, paint and discarded computer equipment. If you don’t dispose of them properly, you too can fall ill.
Ok, that’s scary! What types of compounds comprise toxic waste? I need to look out for them!
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) classifies 11 substances as toxic waste. They are:
• Arsenic: This is used in making electrical circuits and pesticides, and as wood preservative. It can cause cancer and ingesting too much arsenic can kill you, as you have no doubt heard.
• Asbestos: This was used in the past for building insulation. Some construction companies still use it to manufacture roofs and brakes. If you inhale asbestos fibres, this can cause a type of lung cancer called mesothelioma, as well as asbestosis.
• Cadmium: This is found in batteries and plastics. It can cause lung damage, digestive track problems and kidney disease.
• Chromium: This is used as a brick lining for high-temperature industrial furnaces. It is also used in steelmaking, chrome plating, dyes, pigments, wood preserving and leather tanning. It can cause cancer and chronic bronchitis.
• Clinical waste: Used syringes and medication bottles can spread bacteria and viruses. These are biohazards.
• Cyanide: This is used in some pesticides and chemicals that kill rats. It can lead to paralysis, fits and respiratory distress.
• Lead: Found in batteries, paints and gunpowder. This can damage your nerves, brain, reproductive system and kidneys.
• Mercury: People used this for dental fillings in the past. It is still used in batteries and the production of chlorine gas. It can lead to birth defects, as well as kidney and brain damage.
• PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls): These are used in many manufacturing processes, paints and sealants.
This can damage your nervous, reproductive and immune systems, as well as your liver.
• POPs (persistent organic pollutants): These are found in chemicals and pesticides. They also lead to nervous and reproductive system problems. These are particularly dangerous because they can accumulate in the food chain and environment. They can be moved from continent to continent through sea and wind.
• Strong acids and alkalis: These are used in manufacturing. They can destroy your body tissue obviously.
How do I avoid these toxic wastes?
It depends a lot on your profession. Sometimes, you just can’t! However, appropriate safety measures can and must be taken.
If you work in manufacturing, your employer should take appropriate care of your working conditions. You need to wear gloves, masks, scrubs, protective overalls etc. You should be trained through a safety course.
If you work in the healthcare sector, then you will also be taught to be careful about needles and syringes, and how to dispose of them properly in specialised bins for biological waste. When dealing with cancer drugs and other cytotoxics, you will be also asked to wear masks.
There are warning labels on how to use detergents, acids and pesticides in your home. You should read those warning labels and keep those chemicals properly – out of harm’s way and your children’s hands.
Help! I have been exposed! What do I do now?
Most toxic chemicals can only do you harm when they come in contact with your body or if you swallow them. So if toxic chemicals come in contact with your skin, for example, you should quickly wash it off with water and go to the hospital emergency department immediately.
If you breathe in or ingest toxic chemicals and you start having difficulty in breathing, go immediately to the hospital emergency department. Different chemicals require different methods of treatment, and only trained doctors will know what to do. Don’t attempt to treat yourself!