Baux­ite Con­tam­i­na­tion - The Long-Term Ef­fects on Health

The Long-Term Ef­fects on Health

Insurance - - CONTENTS - Text Dr Na­diah Shaika Leaguat Ali Khan



Baux­ite is a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring, het­ero­ge­neous ma­te­rial com­posed pri­mar­ily of one or more alu­minium hy­drox­ide min­er­als, plus var­i­ous mix­tures of sil­ica, iron ox­ide, ti­ta­nia, alu­mi­nosil­i­cate, and other impurities in mi­nor or trace amounts. Baux­ites are typ­i­cally clas­si­fied ac­cord­ing to their in­tended com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tion: abra­sive, ce­ment, chem­i­cal, met­al­lur­gi­cal, re­frac­tory, etc. The bulk of world baux­ite pro­duc­tion (ap­prox­i­mately 85%) is used as feed for the man­u­fac­ture of alu­mina via a wet chem­i­cal caus­tic leach method com­monly known as the Bayer process, as quoted from USGS of­fi­cial web­sitei. The alu­minium-con­tain­ing baux­ite ores gibb­site, böh­mite and di­as­pore are the ba­sic raw ma­te­ri­als for pri­mary alu­minium pro­duc­tion.


The process of alu­mina re­fin­ing ex­tracts alu­mina from baux­ite ore, leav­ing baux­ite residue, which com­prises red mud and sand. Baux­ite residue is ergo a by-prod­uct of alu­mina re­fin­ing and is stored in spe­cial fa­cil­i­ties. Baux­ite residue is a red­dish brown, non-com­bustible solid. Baux­ite residue cus­tom­ar­ily con­sists mostly of iron (which is why it looks red), alu­mina con­tain­ing min­er­als, and sil­ica. It also con­tains minute pro­por­tions of other min­er­als. The pH level is up to 13, due to al­kali sodium com­pounds, such as sodium car­bon­ate and sodium hy­drox­ide. The main con­cern re­gard­ing this is the al­kali na­ture of baux­ite residue which contributes to health ef­fects. Baux­ite residue com­po­si­tion varies by re­gion, but typ­i­cally con­tains the

fol­low­ing com­po­nents, in roughly the pro­por­tions listed:

Min­ing is viewed as one of the con­se­quen­tial eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties which have the po­ten­tial of con­tribut­ing to the de­vel­op­ment of economies. Con­cur­rently, the en­vi­ron­men­tal and health im­pacts of min­ing on cir­cum­vent­ing com­mu­ni­ties have been a ma­jor con­cern es­pe­cially to the gen­eral pub­lic.

Re­cently, baux­ite min­ing has be­come a con­tro­ver­sial is­sue in Malaysia. While most other coun­tries are pro­scrib­ing baux­ite min­ing, Malaysia com­menced to in­crease the en­gage­ment in 2014 by putting Kuantan as its main min­ing hub. Some of th­ese com­pa­nies have li­cense; but many did notii.

Th­ese im­mensely colos­sal com­pa­nies ap­proached small­hold­ers whose prop­er­ties con­tained baux­ite, and of­fer them sub­stan­tial sums of money to sanc­tion their land to be mined. First started as a small min­ing process turned into ma­jor de­vel­op­ment overnight. Kuantan country roads wind­ing through the hills were sud­denly con­gested with enor­mous lor­ries car­ry­ing the ore to the port in Kuantan. Rivers started turn­ing red filled with baux­ite sed­i­ments caus­ing pol­luted wa­ters where it af­fects the health­care of the nearby res­i­dents.

An in­ter­view done by BBCiii re­vealed how badly the wa­ter pol­lu­tion in Kuantan is. They also wit­nessed the Malaysia Na­ture So­ci­ety (MNS) tak­ing sam­ples from the Sagu River, at the point where the wa­ter is pumped out for Kuantan’s do­mes­tic sup­ply.

They col­lected bot­tles of wa­ter and trays of al­lu­vial mud, and an­a­lysed them to de­tect the pres­ence of heavy me­tals, ar­senic and mer­cury, which typ­i­cally ex­ist in baux­ite sed­i­ment.

Govern­ment of­fi­cials are al­ready do­ing sim­i­lar tests, but the fail­ure to reg­u­late the baux­ite in­dus­try has dam­aged pub­lic trust in its ef­forts; the MNS vol­un­teers said they wanted to do the tests them­selves to as­cer­tain how badly pol­luted the wa­ter sup­ply is.

Ma­rine sci­en­tists have also warned of pos­si­ble cat­a­strophic dam­age to the ecosys­tem off the coast of Pa­hang.


Long-term ex­po­sures to baux­ite do arise in health­care prob­lems and must be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion very firmly by the govern­ment. This im­plica­tively en­dan­gers the work­ers as well, as they are ex­posed to baux­ite min­ing ev­ery day. Ac­cord­ing to OSHA, the sodium hy­drox­ide (NaOH) is the pri­mary waste in red sludge and it is dele­te­ri­ous to hu­man be­ings af­ter pro­tracted con­tact of ap­prox­i­mately 15 years. Di­rect con­tact may cause a num­ber of prob­lems to hu­mans due to the al­ka­line na­ture of the residue. The sever­ity will de­pend on the al­ka­lin­ity of the ex­po­sure and the du­ra­tion of con­tact.

Th­ese in­clude skin prob­lems which cause ir­ri­ta­tion or burns of the skin, and eye ex­po­sure may pro­duce de­fect to the cornea. In­ges­tion of this ma­te­rial can cause cor­ro­sive ef­fects of the mouth, throat, oe­soph­a­gus and stom­ach. Early symp­toms in­cludes ar­du­ous­ness or painful swal­low­ing, vom­it­ing, re­gur­gi­ta­tion, and chest or ab­dom­i­nal pain.

Apart from that, the in­hala­tion of the cor­ro­sive ma­te­rial, if it gets to the lungs, can ad­di­tion­ally lead to vex­a­tion of the lower air­ways caus­ing short­ness of breath, chest tight­ness and cough, es­pe­cially in peo­ple with un­der­ly­ing lung dis­eases like Asthma and Chronic Ob­struc­tive Pul­monary Dis­ease (COPD).

How­ever, all of this be­ing said, a study was pub­lished in Sept 2001 by In­sti­tute of Oc­cu­pa­tional Health, Univer­sity of Birm­ing­hamiv, fix­at­ing on Res­pi­ra­tory symp­toms and lung func­tion in baux­ite min­ers. Cur­rent em­ploy­ees at three baux­ite mines in Aus­tralia were in­vited to par­tic­i­pate in a sur­vey com­pris­ing ques­tion­naire on de­mo­graphic de­tails, res­pi­ra­tory symp­toms, and work his­tory; skin prick tests for four com­mon aeroal­ler­gens; and spirom­e­try. Data were ex­am­ined for as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween cu­mu­la­tive baux­ite ex­po­sure, and res­pi­ra­tory symp­toms and lung func­tion, by re­gres­sion anal­y­ses.

The re­sult in­di­cates that there is no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in the preva­lence of res­pi­ra­tory symp­toms iden­ti­fied be­tween sub­jects, in the quar­tiles of cu­mu­la­tive baux­ite ex­po­sure dis­tri­bu­tion.

Although the study showed no sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect to the lungs, we still need to con­sider and cross ex­am­ine the data with re­cent stud­ies as­so­ci­ated with ex­po­sure to baux­ite from an open-cut baux­ite mine in present day con­di­tions. Stan­dard pre­cau­tions and mea­sures need to be a pri­or­ity and taken into earnest con­sid­er­a­tion.

An­other study among baux­ite min­ers and alu­mina re­fin­ery work­ers fo­cus­ing on re­la­tion­ships be­tween alu­mina and baux­ite dust ex­po­sure and can­cer, res­pi­ra­tory and cir­cu­la­tory dis­ease was done by The De­part­ment of Epi­demi­ol­ogy and Pre­ven­tive Medicinev, Monash Univer­sity, Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia and was pub­lished in Sept 2009. This group of 5,770 males had pre­vi­ously been linked to na­tional mor­tal­ity, and na­tional and state can­cer in­ci­dence reg­istries (1983-2002). Th­ese pre­lim­i­nary find­ings, based on very few cases, sug­gested that cu­mu­la­tive in­hal­able baux­ite ex­po­sure may be as­so­ci­ated with an ex­cess risk of death from non-ma­lig­nant res­pi­ra­tory dis­ease and that cu­mu­la­tive in­hal­able alu­mina dust ex­po­sure may be as­so­ci­ated with an ex­cess risk of death from cere­brovas­cu­lar dis­ease. Nei­ther ex­po­sure ap­pears to in­crease the risk of in­ci­dent can­cers.

The med­i­cal statis­ticsvi proved that pro­longed tox­i­c­ity may cause en­cephalopa­thy, os­teo­poro­sis, ane­mia, and pos­si­bly Parkin­son dis­eases. A re­searcher in Aus­tralia where baux­ite min­ing is largely de­vel­oped proved that red sludge causes lung can­cer and uterus de­for­ma­tion in rat ex­per­i­ments. The com­mon symp­toms of tox­i­c­ity on hu­mans are dizzi­ness, ver­tigo, nau­sea, faint­ing, or co­matose if breath­ing or tak­ing in a large dosage.


In cases of in­ges­tion, the ma­te­rial should be di­luted by giv­ing wa­ter or nor­mal sa­line, and med­i­cal as­sess­ment should fol­low th­ese first aid mea­sures with­out de­lay. This ap­plies for ex­ces­sive in­hala­tion with symp­toms as well. Ex­po­sure to skin and eyes should be fol­lowed with an ir­ri­ga­tion pro­ce­dure where the first step is to re­move con­tam­i­nated cloth­ing and flush ex­posed ar­eas with wa­ter for at least 20 min­utes. Ir­ri­ga­tion should be fol­lowed as anon as pos­si­ble af­ter skin con­tam­i­na­tion as ev­ery sec­ond counts.


At the mo­ment, the pub­lic is aware of baux­ite min­ing in Kuantan. But, how much in­for­ma­tion about the process and its ef­fects on health is still un­clear as the num­ber of stud­ies re­lated to long-term ef­fects are small in num­ber. This is a ma­jor chal­lenge in iden­ti­fy­ing clear ex­po­sure ef­fects with re­la­tion­ship to health es­pe­cially con­cern­ing to res­pi­ra­tory dis­eases.

Re­gard­less of how, the govern­ment and as­so­ci­ated de­part­ments should look into this quandary in de­tail and emerge with a so­lu­tion im­me­di­ately as de­lay­ing it may cause more harm to the nearby res­i­dents in the short-term, and may af­fect larger pop­u­la­tion in the long-term. Con­tin­u­a­tion of baux­ite min­ing won't just af­fect the health, but also cause po­ten­tially ir­re­versible dam­age to the ecol­ogy and agri­cul­ture on a wide scale.

Res­i­dents near baux­ite min­ing should also take ex­tra pre­cau­tions and mon­i­tor their fam­i­lies and com­mu­nity mem­bers from be­ing ex­posed to and in­hala­tion of baux­ite.

Baux­ite min­ing may con­trib­ute to the econ­omy of Malaysia, but when pub­lic health is at stake, ban­ning it will out­weigh the ben­e­fits and avert health­care prob­lems.

Con­tin­u­a­tion of baux­ite min­ing won't just af­fect the health, but also cause po­ten­tially ir­re­versible dam­age to the ecol­ogy and agri­cul­ture on a wide scale.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.