Health and Safety Concerns for Workers and Local Communities
“No monetary returns of whatever Foreign Direct Investment and its spinoffs can outweigh possible radiation and/or other health risks, which can wreak harm on our citizens, perhaps for as long as the half-lives of some of the extremely toxic radionuclide waste products —which in some cases might be ‘forever’!”
One of the most contentious issues with the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant is the thorium (Th) by-product. Exposure to Thorium can cause cancer posing serious risks to workers at the LAMP and surrounding communities. Studies have shown that inhaling thorium dust causes an increased risk of developing lung cancer, and cancer of the pancreas. Bone cancer risk is also increased because thorium may be stored in bone. Thorium has a half life of 14 billion years and is easily transported and spread through wind and water.
An earlier rare earth plant, the Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE) owned by Mitsubishi Chemicals in Bukit Merah in the state of Perak, Malaysia was forced to close down after strong community pressure and court action. During the 1980s and early ’90s Mitsubishi dumped radioactive waste onto open ground. The Malaysian authorities assured local people it was safe. After years of discontent Mitsubishi closed down the plant and allocated AUS$100 million to the clean-up operation. Only recently, 80,000 tonnes of waste with thorium were found left in the open.
The ARE contaminated a large area and affected many nearby residents. Several people died. Abnormally high numbers of childhood leukaemia and birth defects were observed. Some of the surviving residents of Bukit Merah are still plagued with severe health problems. Until this very day, the Malaysian authorities refuse to acknowledge that the radioactive waste was responsible for the sudden escalation of health problems among the residents.
Lynas will be processing 10 times the amount of ore compared to the ARE. Despite Lynas’ public proclamation of “Zero Harm” commitment there is no foolproof containment measures for such toxic residue for workers onsite at the LAMP. It should be noted that the ores that Chinese miners were exposed to in Bayun Obo Rare-Earth and Iron Mine contained 400 ppm of thorium. The rare earth oxide concentrates that will be arriving shortly at Kuantan port will have 1600 ppm of thorium. The US Public Health Service (1990) reports that the natural background level in soil is typically 6 ppm of thorium.
 ‘Recent results from a study of thorium lung burdens and health effects among miners in China’, Chen XA, Cheng YE, Rong Z, Journal of Radiological Protection, 2005