Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Thursday he would not declare an emergency, although the army announced that it had deployed a team in Johor state where authorities shut down dozens of schools after toxic waste sickened 2,775 people.
State authorities ordered 111 schools to close Wednesday after hundreds of students and teachers were rushed to area hospitals following their exposure to toxic fumes from chemicals illegally dumped into a local river.
“We do not have to declare an emergency, do not have to evacuate people,” Mahathir told reporters. “But we need to be careful and those who are in charge of maintaining this situation must be prepared to handle any problems that occur.”
Mahathir spoke to journalists after receiving a briefing from local authorities about the dumping of toxic waste in the Kim Kim River in Pasir Gudang, an industrial town about 330 km (206 miles) southeast of the capital Kuala Lumpur.
The Malaysian Army said in a statement that a 25-member team of specialists and paramedics had been deployed to the crisis area to assist the state government in ongoing clean-up efforts.
During the past few days, a total of 2,775 people have complained of breathing difficulties, dizziness and vomiting after inhaling toxic fumes, state officials said.
State-run news service Bernama quoted Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin as saying that rain could have caused the contamination to spread despite efforts to contain it.
Local reports said the river waste could have contained chemicals that were used to dissolve metal at a scrapyard and a chemical factory.
Shahruddin Jamal, chairman of the state’s health, environment and agriculture committee, said charges were being prepared against the owner of a recycled-tire factory who was arrested last week. Three suspects have also been arrested and detained, police said.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s Civil Defense Force and the National Environment Agency said they had determined that no toxic elements had penetrated the island city-state’s water system and no anomalies had been detected in air quality. Johor state, in southern Peninsular Malaysia is separated from the Lion City by the Strait of Johor.
“We understand that the clean-up operation by the Malaysian authorities is in progress. The affected area is outside of the Johor River catchment, and there is no impact on Singapore’s water supply,” the agencies said in a joint statement.