It has been nearly 30 years to the day that Lai Kwan first set foot on the grounds of the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) factory in Bukit Merah, Perak.
She had just found out that she was pregnant with her sixth and youngest child, but poverty left her little choice as she had to take up a job as a labourer with a local contractor, hired to build an additional structure at the facility.
Unknown to her, that decision to earn her family’s daily bread would ultimately break her heart.
Several months after her stint at the ARE plant, her son, whom she asked only to be identified as Kok Leong, was born disabled.
The boy had severe problems with his eyes, eventually losing sight in his left eye when he was five. He also suffers from a hole in his heart.
But what pains Lai Kwan the most is that her precious son is mentally challenged.
Kok Leong is now an adult of 29 years, but his mind is no more developed than a toddler’s. He has little or no capacity for speech, and he has never been out of diapers.
To keep him from wandering out of the safety of their home, he is kept at the back of their modest unit - separated from the rest of the world by a makeshift wire mesh door that stands up to his chest.
And that is where Lai Kwan, now 69, has spent the past three decades, caring for her boy all these years in much the same way that she had from the first day she brought him home.
One of Lai Kwan’s daughters had to quit school even before she finished Remove class, to help support the family, since her husband had abandoned them and she could not leave her son’s side.
“When you see me and my son, can you feel how I feel?” she said in Hakka, the only dialect she is fluent in due to her limited education.
No clue on radiation exposure
The ARE plant, run by Japanese company Mitsubishi Chemicals from the 1980s to the early 1990s, is blamed for spreading radiation poisoning in Bukit Merah due to what is claimed to be its poor management of radioactive waste generated from processing tin tailings to extract rare earth.
The aftermath of the factory’s operations has been one of the largest radioactive waste clean-ups in Asia, with a permanent site set up at the foot of nearby Kledang hill.
Ghosts of the health hazards leaking out of the ARE episode resurfaced recently when plans by Australian mining firm Lynas to build another rare earth processing facility , this time in Gebeng, Pahang, were made public.
Recounting her time working on the ARE premises, Lai Kwan said it was a bit odd that all staff members were required to wear a thermometer-like pin over their chests whenever they were on site, which she found out later was used to measure exposure to radioactivity.
“Every time at work, I would smell something really awful. It made me thirsty but otherwise I didn’t feel anything strange.
“I only found out (about radioactive waste) when the residents of Kg Papan started protesting against the factory over plans to bury the wastes in the village. The villagers told me about it,” she said.
Another senior citizen, whose family was also afflicted by radiation poisoning from the ARE plant, said it has been hard for her youngest daughter, having been constantly going in and out of the hospital since she was a baby.
Panchavarnam Shanmugam, 55, was working as a labourer clearing forest cover on a plot of land right next to the ARE factory in 1987 when she noticed a lot of water being flushed out from the factory.
“Our work took us about seven months to finish. Many times, there would be a lot of water coming from the factory and it would rise to almost as high as our knees. The water was very smelly,” she said at her home.
‘My child suffers’
A year later, Panchavarnam’s youngest child, Kasturi, was born and almost immediately the complications arose.
She recounted how as a baby, Kasturi suddenly suffered inflammation all over her body to the point that she had to be treated in a sterile environment at the hospital.
Her daughter also had constant, splitting headaches, which came with heavy nose bleeds and on some occasions, fainting.
It was only when Kasturi was around 10 or 11 years old that doctors discovered that she was suffering from leukaemia. Neither of her two elder siblings has the disease, nor could Panchavarnam recall anyone in her family having the condition.
She could not run like her friends, and she just found it hard to concentrate on anything. She can speak English, but it’s difficult for her to focus... she could not finish her Form Five,” Panchavarnam said of her daughter.
Kasturi, now 23, is now working in a nearby textile store, but Panchavarnam noted that her daughter still goes in and out of the hospital regularly.
“It has been hard for her,” said the doting mother.
And, as described by Lai Kwan’s daughter, who asked not to be named, it is hard not only on those made sick by the radiation but also on their families, who are helpless to change the fortunes of their loved ones.
“I had a hard time in school before I stopped, because my classmates would make fun of my brother because of how he is. My mother couldn’t go for wedding dinners, or celebrate Mother’s Day because there wouldn’t be anyone to take care of my brother.
“We have cried so much that our tears have run dry,” she said.