Pasir Gudang gas linked to cancer, says lecturer

130 pupils and teachers fell ill barely hours after schools reopened in Pasir Gudang today. (Bernama pic)

JOHOR BAHRU: One of the gases in the Pasir Gudang air pollution could cause cancer among those exposed to it for too long, says a university lecturer.

The cause of the air pollution is still unknown, however Yeo Bee Yin, the minister for Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change, recently announced that acrylonitrile, akrolein and methyl mercaptan had been detected.

Following that, a handful of residents in Pasir Gudang who were met by Bernama raised various questions regarding the side-effects on health over the next five to 10 years if they were exposed to the material.

The warning of the cancer link was made by Dr Zulkifli Abdul Rashid, a senior lecturer at the chemical engineering faculty of Universiti Teknologi Mara Shah Alam. He said acrylonitrile gas had a carcinogenic nature that could cause cancer if one was exposed to the gas daily or for too long.

This is evident from scientific studies as reported in the toxicology database by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, he told Bernama.

“If they (the residents) are exposed to this gas odour (acrylonitrile) for too long, it not only has short-term effects on health, but can harm the internal organs causing cancer.

“The results of epidemiological studies show that acrylonitrile can be carcinogenic to humans. It has been found to cause tumours in mice, some scientific studies also show that acrylonitrile is also said to cause lung cancer in humans,” he said.

However, the probability of the population at risk of cancer depends on several factors including their medical history whether they have asthma, age factor, duration and concentration of exposure to the gas.

“In addition, the geographical aspect or position of residents living close to the current air pollution area are at a higher risk of developing cancer in a shorter time than those living far away from the source of these gaseous pollutants,” he explained.

The latest pollution incident has caused respiratory problems among residents of Pasir Gudang since June 20. It is the second environmental problem after chemical waste pollution at Sungai Kim Kim in March caused 4,000 people to fall ill, leading to the closure of 111 schools.

Zulkifli said he expected five toxic gases to be found, including the three that have been detected so far. Methyl mercaptan and acrylonitrile would react with water to produce two other types of toxic gas such as hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen cyanide, which give off a rotten and rancid odour.

The ‘mysterious’ smell the people around Pasir Gudang have been getting was probably one of the two gases, he said.

Most residents around Pasir Gudang have complained of a strange odour that worsened at night and after it rains.

Zulkifli said hydrogen sulphide has an acrid smell like rotten eggs, while hydrogen cyanide has an odour of ‘bitter almonds’ but not everyone can detect the smell.

The presence of hydrogen cyanide gas was reported highest in Taman Tanjung Puteri Resort during the toxic waste disposal at Sungai Kim Kim, Pasir Gudang on March 13.