PASIR GUDANG (JOHOR) - More than 70 students in Johor's Pasir Gudang district were referred to hospital after toxic fumes in the area caused breathing difficulties and vomiting.
But senior Malaysian officials on Monday (June 24) appeared no closer to explaining the cause.
Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin had said at first the air was polluted by fumes from incomplete cleaning up of the toxic waste dumped into Sungai Kim Kim in March, but later backtracked and said it was not related to the March incident.
Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said the symptoms displayed by the victims were different from those seen in the earlier river dumping incident.
Johor Menteri Besar Sahruddin Jamal also dismissed claims that the fumes originated from Sungai Kim Kim.
As of 3pm on Monday, 75 students were referred to Hospital Sultan Ismail with only four still warded.
At the Pasir Gudang Indoor Stadium where most of the victims were given first treatment and in housing estates around it, parents of the affected students told The Straits Times they were very upset that this is happening again.
One of them is small time trader Jamaluddin Abdul Malik, whose 13-year-old daughter is a victim of the latest incident. The teenager was also one of the victims of the Sungai Kim Kim pollution three months ago.
"My daughter is very weak now and is currently in the hospital. Even if she is discharged, I am worried about letting her go back to school because we won't know if the pollution will happen again," he said. "We don't feel safe here. I feel that our air is not safe to breathe," he added.
Some suspected that the toxic waste that was previously dumped in Sungai Kim Kim could be the culprit again.
"Maybe they didn't clean the river thoroughly the last time," mused teacher Siti Mariam Saim, whose nine-year-old son, was vomiting non-stop on Monday, while her six-year-old daughter, was having a headache.
"The symptoms displayed were similar to the Sungai Kim Kim incident except this time it is less serious," she said, adding that the air has been smelling of "corroded iron" for the past three days, especially after it rained.
Concerned with what is happening, restaurant owner Rafea Abdullah stopped his daughter from going to school.
He went to his daughter's school on Monday, located about 500m from Sungai Kim Kim and was one of the first schools that was closed during the crisis.
"I went up to the top floor of the building and immediately I felt nauseous, headache and had difficulties breathing, I knew then something was wrong," he said.
He said he will be "very disappointed" if it turns out that the toxic waste from Sungai Kim Kim is again causing the problem.
In March, 111 schools in Pasir Gudang were shut for two weeks following chemical pollution of the river, which flows into the Strait of Johor just north of Pulau Ubin.
The disaster caused 5,848 people to seek medical treatment after inhaling toxic fumes from the river.
On Monday, Bernama news agency quoted Datuk Zuraida Kamaruddin as saying that initial investigations found the cleaning contractor who was supposed to clear the Sungai Kim Kim waste did not do a thorough job.
"As the hazardous materials have been exposed to wind and rain, the uncontrolled air borne substances may have spread and affected the people once again," she told reporters in Putrajaya.
But in a later statement, she said from the latest information received, the hazardous materials in the river were already cleared and had been disposed of.
Health Minister Dzulkefly said the latest incident is not similar to Sungai Kim Kim. "The victims of Sungai Kim Kim were warded in the ICU (intensive care unit) but for this incident, the victims were just experiencing vomiting and shortness of breath," he said at a news conference at the Pasir Gudang stadium on Monday. "These (symptoms) will not stay in the body for too long, it will be excreted."
Johor chief minister Sharuddin Jamal in dismissing that toxic waste from Sungai Kim Kim is again to blame, said: "For now, we have been informed that it is not the same."
The Chemical Department will take two days to identify the chemicals involved, he said.
Still, despite residents' concerns, life went on as usual on Monday.
Businesses at the affected areas were operating as normal and there was no sense of panic in the air.
There was a sense of inevitability that they have to put up with this.
"Of course I am afraid that this will affect my health but what can I do? I need to earn a living," said a goreng pisang (banana fritters) seller who wanted to be known as Kak Non.
She said she did smell something funny in the air, but has not felt the need to seek treatment. "Life still has to go on."