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Bauxite mining's unhealthy effects on people, environment

Bauxite is a rock that is mainly composed of various minerals. Most importantly, bauxite is the primary ore for aluminum. Aluminum is a very crucial element as its uses are varied and diverse - such as its usage in transportation, household items, packaging, power lines, and construction.

In Malaysia, the active bauxite mine is located in Gebeng, Pahang. However, the mine - while strengthening the economy as well as serving as a lucrative source of income for many people - is also causing intense suffering to the locals.

Bauxite mining has indeed caused pollution around Bukit Goh, Gebeng and the Kuantan Port. For months, certain areas in the district - particularly Bukit Goh - have suffered serious air pollution from bauxite dust and residue that were released by the processing plants or leaked during transportation to the Kuantan Port.

This pollution has damaged the roads, the river and more recently, the bauxite residue has been flowing out to the sea due to heavy rain showers . It was previously reported that local citizens had been alarmed at the colour of the sea turning red.

Several fatal accidents were also caused by lorries transporting bauxite. These lorries caused further traffic congestion as the drivers parked their lorries indiscriminately on the roads.

Additionally, the poorly regulated mining of bauxite could be just as severe, as the ecosystem may never recover from this.

Such irresponsible practices has caused adverse health effects to the people who live near the mining sites, too. Natural bauxite ore consists of aluminum hydroxide, iron oxide, titanium oxide and reactive silica - the substances of which affect human health.

Aluminum hydroxide is the main content of the bauxite ore, which is 32-52 percent. Excessive exposure of aluminum hydroxide could be detrimental to health as pain and reddening of the nose, coughing, pain and redness of the skin, along with peeling and itching eyes, are among the significant effects of exposure to bauxite dust.

Studies have shown that these materials could lead to neurological problems such as chronic brain syndrome, anxiety for no reason, forgetfulness, or Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease in adults.

It is noted that the content of iron oxide in bauxite is 15-34 percent, less compared to aluminum hydroxide. Iron oxide is the substance that causes the roads, river and sea to become reddish. Long-term exposure of iron oxide to the respiratory system could lead to the accumulation of iron in the liver tissue and affect the functioning of the liver system. The situation is thus worsened for people with thalassemia and hemophilia or those suffering from swelling of the liver and spleen.

Next, titanium oxide is the third content in bauxite. Exposure of this substance may give an adverse effect to those who suffer from eczema skin, heart problems and liver problems.

Moreover, the content of reactive silica in bauxite is 1-8 percent. Exposure to high concentrations can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, fainting or even death. Longer periods of exposure cause the inflammation of the lungs. Then it will become worse and cause problems such as chronic bronchitis or acute respiratory infections silicosis.

Bauxite mining has become a good source of income for many people - especially low-income earners. However, a responsible action plan should be taken by the regulators to strictly enforce safety and health regulations and ensure the consumers’ well-being.

The bauxite mining industry may become a good fortune for every person if and only if the mining operators and the transport contractors responsibly manage the mining and transportation operations according to the rules and regulations that have been set.

Let’s not forget that the public has a right to obtain a healthy and safe environment.

NUR IMANI ABDULLAH is research and policy executive, Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca), Petaling Jaya.

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