Support action on pollution

Chemicals in the water: The Fire and Rescue Department’s Hazardous Materials Unit personnel collecting water samples from Sg Kim Kim in Johor in 2019. It was one of the worst chemical pollution incidents in the country, affecting the health of more than 4,000 people. — Filepic/The Star

CHEMICALS, waste and pollution are collectively a critical issue that will be discussed at the United Nations Environment Assembly taking place in Nairobi from today until Wednesday. More specifically, more than 10 countries will call for the establishment of an inter- governmental science-policy body on the issue.

As an environmental scientist, I am hopeful that Malaysia too will back this initiative. To this end, I sent letters and emails over four weeks ago to the Environment and Water Ministry and several other policymakers requesting their support. These letters were part of a campaign led by the International Panel on Chemical Pollution made up of independent scientists.

In these letters, I and several local NGOs urged our policymakers to consider the effects of chemicals, waste and pollution on the rakyat and the impact such pollution has had on our society and environment. For example, Malaysians have suffered the impacts of water disruptions due to chemical pollution. We are no doubt tired of reading about discoveries of toxic waste dumps and yet another shipment of tonnes of hazardous waste landing on our shores.

However, these are just the effects on a macro scale. Ample scientific research has shown that individual exposure to chemicals in our daily lives is widespread and a significant cause for concern.

Whether through house dust, food containers, blood and even breastmilk, the over 350,000 chemicals registered for use on the global market worldwide are making their way into our bodies. According to the The Lancet commission on pollution and health, 16% of worldwide deaths are attributed to chemical exposure, not to mention their contribution to the onset of cancers, neurological diseases, and other illnesses (

And let us not forget the impact on our ecosystems – a recent study of pharmaceutical pollution in the world’s rivers has been making international headlines (“Pharma-ceutical pollution of the world’s rivers” by Wilkinson, JL, et al, Procee-dings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States; This is just one of many studies going back decades confirming what my colleagues and I have long known: chemicals are in our waters, our animals, our babies, and in ourselves.

Efforts to soundly manage chemicals through various multilateral environmental agreements (eg, Basel, Minamata, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions) have had varied success but are overall too fragmented and have a very limited scope. The most recent international initiative – the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Manage-ment – was only voluntary, and its mandate expired in 2020.

Now more than ever, we need an intergovernmental science-policy body addressing chemicals, waste and pollution.

The emphasis on “science-policy” is crucial – policies to manage chemicals throughout their lifecycle should be informed by the latest and most rigorous scientific findings. Scientists and policymakers must work together on horizon scanning and early warning mechanisms, and mutually communicate findings and policy developments.

Chemicals, waste, and pollution know no boundaries, and a concerted international effort is needed to tackle their impact on national, regional and global levels.

I remain hopeful that Malaysia will show leadership and join its international counterparts in supporting the resolution at this week’s United Nations Environment Assembly.

ADELENE LAI , Environmental scientist Petaling Jaya

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