JOHOR BAHRU: Twenty-one students were still in hospital on Friday (Mar 8) after breathing in toxic fumes from chemical waste that had been illegally dumped into a river near schools in Pasir Gudang, said Malaysian Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching.
The students were among the 39 people still warded at the Sultan Ismail Hospital, after a tanker lorry purportedly dumped chemical waste into the Kim Kim River in Johor on Wednesday morning.
The students are from two schools, which were ordered shut on Thursday after one fainted and several others started vomiting. A few workers from the school canteens, an ambulance driver and a history teacher were also taken ill.
A total of 1,400 students were evacuated on Thursday from Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (SMK) Pasir Putih and Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) Taman Pasir Putih.
The schools will remain closed until at least Saturday.
Teo told reporters after visiting the students at the hospital that two of them, both girls, were in intensive care, although their condition was stable. A canteen operator was also in intensive care.
"A BAD SMELL"
A homemaker living near the river said she first detected “a bad smell” at about 3am on Thursday.
“I went to the kitchen because I thought the cooking gas was leaking. When I switched on the fan to disperse the smell, it just got stronger … like the odour of petrol or burning tyres,” said Echa Anak Paoh, 42, whose 17-year-old son was hospitalised.
Echa said her throat started to feel parched and itchy soon after, leaving her unable to sleep.
“My husband felt the same, but my son still went to school and used a route near Sungai Kim Kim. About 10.30am, however, a teacher sent me a WhatsApp message to pick him up,” she told reporters.
When Echa arrived at the school, she was told that her son, Harry Martin Anak Ebom, had been taken to hospital.
Harry told reporters that his class was originally scheduled to have a physical education (PE) lesson on Thursday, but the teacher cancelled it because of the “dirty air”.
“Right after the teacher said that we should go home, I started feeling nauseous and vomited. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Today I feel a bit better,” Harry said.
Intisar Nazihah Mohd Nazri, 16, who is from Harry’s school, said her mother took her to the hospital at about 9.30pm on Thursday after she started feeling queasy.
“I felt a little dizzy in school … but when I got home, I started vomiting. I was admitted around 1am and the doctor took a blood sample for testing,” she said.
Johor Fire Rescue Department director Datuk Yahaya Madis said on Friday that the clean-up of the river was completed at 8.30pm the previous evening after the hazardous material (HazMat) team determined the river was safe.
“(Further action) will be left to the Johor Department of Environment (DoE), Drainage and Irrigation Department and Pasir Gudang Municipal Council to conduct monitoring and cleaning of the river over the next five days,” he said.
The New Straits Times cited Teo as saying that stern action needs to be taken against those responsible as the incident had endangered innocent lives.
She added that her ministry will work with the Department of Environment to identify the parties responsible.
"This is not the first time that this has happened. A similar incident happened in Klang last year, although that was not as severe as this one," said Teo.