According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution kills seven million people a year. Fine particulate matter in polluted air can penetrate deep into the body, leading to health problems such as difficulty in breathing, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. The particles could also weaken the immune system and fuel inflammation of the lungs and respiratory tract, increasing the risk of pneumonia.
Not surprisingly, scientists have found that the death rates from Covid-19 were higher in places where people had been exposed to prolonged high levels of air pollution. Across 66 administrative regions in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, 78 percent of coronavirus deaths occurred in just five regions in north Italy and central Spain, the most polluted regions. A further finding indicated that air pollution particles could carry pathogens.
The consequences of air pollution on public health are difficult to quantify, particularly when considering the myriad factors that determine one’s health. Hence, the impact of air pollution has often been overlooked by policymakers. In Southeast Asia, seasonal air pollution in the form of transboundary haze caused by forest and land fires has led to much political wrangling since the 1980s. However, another source of air pollution caused by irresponsible industrial practices often goes unheeded.
The preliminary findings on air pollution and Covid-19 deaths have sparked off important conversations on public health, the environment and the economy. What is lacking from the debates surrounding Covid-19 is the role of corruption. The links between environmental crime and corruption are well established but the connection between public health and corruption is at best indirect. Nevertheless, as the pandemic has made it painfully clear how intricately connected people are, this is an opportune moment to recognize the interlocking nature of social, economic, environmental and health issues, and the importance of political will to address them.
Plastic waste-recycling in Malaysia
After China banned the import of 24 types of solid waste in 2018, Malaysia became the world’s top destination for plastic waste exports between January to November 2018, receiving 15.7 percent of the total from top exporting countries. Some 17,000 tonnes of rubbish were estimated to have been dumped in open areas in Jenjarom, a small town in Kuala Langat within the state of Selangor.
Illicit businesses shipped in recyclable plastic and unrecyclable household waste. Clean plastic would be processed into pellets which are mainly exported to China. Plastic that was unsuitable for recycling were stockpiled in open spaces or burnt, releasing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. Across peninsula Malaysia, the processing or incineration of plastic waste mostly happened at night to conceal the thick, dark smoke.
As the authorities began cracking down on illegal factories in Selangor, the operations moved north to Penang and Kedah, particularly concentrated in Sungai Petani. Soon, illegal recycling factories were discovered in almost every state in West Malaysia. Since then, at least 12 plastic waste processing facilities nationwide have caught fire. Six fires occurred in 2020 alone, with the most recent factory fire on June 5 in Sungai Petani. No explanations have been given regarding the fires, although rumors abound on facilities trying to dispose of waste stockpiles.
Tonnes of waste have also been illegally dumped. One dumpsite was the size of six football fields and contained two-storey high plastic waste piles, hidden within an oil palm estate. Several dumpsites were also found located on the banks of the Muda River, a main source of water for millions living in the states of Perlis, Kedah and Penang.
On June 12, another illegal dumpsite caught fire in Sungai Petani, a strong indication that this plastic problem persists despite comprehensive action taken by the Malaysian government. Investigators from Greenpeace Italy found high levels of dangerous chemicals, including heavy metals such as cadmium and lead and benzo(a)pyrene, a carcinogen to humans, in plastic, water and soil samples from dumping sites in Malaysia. They also noted an increase of up to 30 percent in respiratory diseases in Sungai Petani from 2018 to 2019. These findings were corroborated in a separate study by Greenpeace Malaysia, released in May 2020.
The Malaysian government in office at that time was aware that plastic waste was being smuggled into the country. The ports were filled with shipping containers carrying goods falsely declared as HS Code 3920 plastic. Instead they held HS Code 3915 plastic waste, which required a so-called “approved permit” (AP). The government also knew that some of the 95 companies that had permits to import waste were subcontracting to illegal factories, as they lacked the capacity to recycle such volumes of waste. Canadian journalists went undercover in Sungai Petani as plastic-waste exporters with a fake company. Their footage captured workers wearing no protective equipment and a clearly identifiable businessman offering to buy dirty plastics and encouraging the exporters to falsify shipping labels. The businessman admitted to receiving kickbacks for helping other companies to import the materials. No action has been taken.