Will Malaysia Support Intergovernmental Action on Chemicals, Waste, and Pollution?

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Letter to the Editor, Your Opinion column, The Star newspaper (28/2/22)

Below is the unedited version of my letter published on 28/2/22 in The Star newspaper.

Dear Editor, dear Fellow Malaysians,

Chemicals, waste, and pollution is a critical issue that will be discussed at this week’s United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA5.2) in Nairobi, Kenya (28 Feb – 2 Mar 2022).

More specifically, over 10 countries will call to establish an intergovernmental science-policy body on chemicals, waste, and pollution.

As an environmental scientist, I am hopeful that Malaysia too will back this initiative.

To this end, I sent letters and emails over four weeks ago to the Ministry of Environment and Water and several other policymakers, requesting their support. These letters were part of a campaign led by the International Panel on Chemical Pollution made up of independent scientists.

In these letters, I and several local NGOs urged our policymakers to consider the effects of chemicals, waste, and pollution on the rakyat and the impact it has had on our society and environment.

For example, Malaysians have suffered the impacts of water disruptions due to chemical pollution [1]. We are no doubt tired of reading about discoveries of toxic waste dumps [2], and yet another shipment of tonnes of hazardous waste landing on our shores [3].

However, these are just the effects on a macro scale.

Ample scientific research has shown that individual exposure to chemicals in our daily lives is widespread and a significant cause for concern.

Whether through house dust [4], food containers [5], blood [6], and even breastmilk [7], the over 350,000 chemicals registered for use on the global market worldwide [8] are making their way into our bodies. 16% of worldwide deaths are attributed to chemical exposure [9], not to mention their contribution to the onset of cancers, neurological diseases, and other illnesses.

And let us not forget the impacts on our ecosystems and the environment – a recent study of pharmaceutical pollution in the world’s rivers has been making international headlines [10]. This is just one of many studies going back decades confirming what my colleagues and I have long known – chemicals are in our waters, our animals, our babies, and in ourselves.

Efforts to soundly manage chemicals through various multilateral environmental agreements (e.g., Basel, Minamata, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions) have had varied success, but are overall too fragmented and cover a very limited scope. The most recent international initiative – the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management – was only voluntary, and its mandate expired in 2020.

Now more than ever, we need an intergovernmental science-policy body addressing chemicals, waste and pollution [11].

The emphasis on ‘science-policy’ will be crucial – policies to manage chemicals throughout their life cycle should be informed by the latest and most rigorous scientific findings. Scientists and policymakers must work together on horizon scanning, early warning mechanisms, and mutually communicate findings and policy developments [11].

Chemicals, waste, and pollution know no boundaries, and a concerted international effort is needed to tackle their impacts on national, regional, and global levels.

I remain hopeful that Malaysia will show leadership and join its international counterparts in supporting the resolution at this week’s UNEA5.2.

Adelene Lai

Environmental Scientist

Petaling Jaya


[1] Choong, J. A history of water cuts in Selangor this year. 2020. https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/10/21/a-history-of-water-cuts-in-selangor-this-year/1914721. Accessed 25 Feb 2022.

[2] Yeung, J. Malaysia finds 1,800 tonnes of illegal toxic waste dumped at port. 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/20/asia/malaysia-waste-dumping-intl-hnk-scli/index.html. Accessed 25 Feb 2022.

[3] Chen, H.L. et al. The plastic waste problem in Malaysia: management, recycling and disposal of local and global plastic waste. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42452-021-04234-y

[4] Hoang, A. Q. et al. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers in indoor and outdoor dust from Southeast Asia: An updated review on contamination status, human exposure, and future perspectives. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2020.116012

[5] Straková J. et al. A Call to Action: Free Children from BPA’s Toxic Legacy. 2022. https://ipen.org/sites/default/files/documents/ipen-bpa-2021-v1_6q.pdf. Accessed 25 Feb 2022.

[6] Barnett-Itzhaki, Z. et al. A review of human biomonitoring in selected Southeast Asian countries. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2018.03.046

[7] Govarts E. et al. Prenatal exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals and risk of being born small for gestational age: Pooled analysis of seven European birth cohorts. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2018.03.017

[8] Wang, Z. et al. Toward a Global Understanding of Chemical Pollution: A First Comprehensive Analysis of National and Regional Chemical Inventories. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.9b06379

[9] Landrigan, P.L. et al. The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32345-0

[10] Wilkinson, J. L. et al. Pharmaceutical pollution of the world’s rivers. 2022. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2113947119

[11] Wang Z. et al. We need a global science-policy body on chemicals and waste. 2021 https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abe9090



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