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More than 400 schools in Pasir Gudang, a town in the Malaysian state of Johor, have been ordered to close until Thursday after chemical pollution saw almost 100 students fall ill. 

"This includes 111 primary and secondary schools … and 347 private kindergartens registered with the department," Azman Adnan, the director of Johor’s education department, stated according to Channel News Asia. “The department will monitor and help schools to ensure the students' wellbeing.” 

The source of pollution is currently unclear. 

Many locals believe chemical factories in the region may have illegally emitted toxic fumes. In March, a similar event occurred, when toxic waste was discarded unlawfully into the Sungai Kim Kim river, which caused poisonous fumes to travel over the same schools currently affected. 

One hundred Pasir Gudang schools were subsequently closed as 5,000 people fell ill.

Three people were later charged. 

Authorities claim there are no chemical remains from the March incident and that the current pollution is unrelated. 

Members of the region’s department of environment are, however, currently using machines to investigate the air quality outside 30 petrochemical and palm oil factories in the region. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced “stern action” would be brought against any individual or company found to be doing the wrong thing.

The link between health deterioration and pollution within Malaysia is not unique to Pasir Gudang. The nation has long witnessed poor air quality — linked predominantly to Malaysia’s regular open burning of forests. 

Likewise, in 2018, following China’s ban on waste imports, Malaysia imported 754,000 tons of plastic waste — up from 250,000 in 2015. Factories in Kuala Langat, near the national capital, were then found to be illegally burning the mounds of waste, which released vast amounts of toxic fumes into the environment and caused locals to become unwell. 

Over the past week, parents in the area have brought their sick children to a stadium in Pasir Gudang that has been temporarily remade into an early treatment center. 

At the center, local mother Siti Mariam Siam told the Malaysian Insight she feared for her children’s safety. 

"The smell was putrid, and it had affected my 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter,” she stated. “He vomited about five times, and my daughter experienced headaches.” 

Another parent, whose daughter has suffered continual vomiting and kidney pain, said Pasir Gudang citizens deserved to be informed when air quality deteriorates. He suggested an alert system be implemented, which could send an email or phone notification to warn residents to stay indoors. 

"We already know this is an industrial area, (the government) must have detectors to monitor any chemical pollution in our air," Malik told Channel News Asia. "There has been no feedback on the source of the contamination. It could happen again now, in a little while or tomorrow, and we wouldn't know. There is no confidence given to residents.”

"We, the residents of Pasir Gudang, don't feel safe anymore,” he added. 

The chief minister of Johor, Sahruddin Jamal, said exact details on the pollution source should be known in a matter of days — once factory inspections conclude.


Defeat Poverty

Over 400 Schools in This Malaysian Town Have Closed Due to Toxic Air Pollution

By Madeleine Keck