Pasir Gudang sits in the shadow of HDB’s latest housing projects. Credit: Herman Wu

Prospective HDB flat buyers looking into the two upcoming BTO projects in Punggol, namely Punggol Point Woods and Punggol Point Cove, should bear in mind the potential health hazards resulting from the nearby petrochemical plants in Pasir Gudang in neighbouring Johor, according to Digital Content Editor of property blog, Mr Kyle Leung.

Mr Leung noted that complaints have arisen regarding the “occasional smell of petroleum coming from the Pasir Gudang Petrochemical Complex across the straits in Malaysia (about 3km away)”, and that despite the National Environment Agency (NEA)’s reassurance that “the smell causes no long-term physical harm, residents have reported physical symptoms such as headache and nausea”.

Citing an example from Sep last year, he said that the NEA did not mention specific details such as figures or any elaboration on the safety guidelines in its announcement regarding its air monitoring stations’ findings, which “detected only low and safe levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)” that are “well within international safety guidelines”.

He also warned that the petrochemical plant in Pasir Gudang frequently carries out “flaring”, which is “the controlled burning of waste gases generated during the petrochemical production process”.

As a consequence, Punggol residents will often see “blazing flames from chimneys lighting up the night sky” and hear “faint roars from the chimney stacks”.

Mr Leung added that while “by-products of flaring — large amounts of carbon dioxide — do not necessarily pose an immediate health hazard”, the visual and aural pollution are akin to “global warming in motion”.

He added that the “chemical smells” picked up by Singaporeans living in the north-east area is “a mixture of sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)” being emitted from the Pasir Gudang petrochemical plant. The odour is reported to be “acrid and gas-like”.

According to residents in Punggol and Sengkang, and even as far as Ang Mo Kio, they have been experiencing “headaches, eye irritation, itchy throat and other respiratory conditions that correspond to symptoms experienced during and after exposure to airborne chemicals”. It was also reported that “exposure to airborne VOCs has also been known to trigger asthma attacks in sufferers”.

Furthermore, petrochemical VOCs contain benzene, which can be carcinogenic to humans, along with toluene and xylene. The three VOCs are known as BTX.

“There are several BTX producing facilities in Pasir Gudang, and Lotte Chemical Titan has begun operations at a new BTX plant in 2018 as part of its latest expansion, producing 134,000 tonnes of BTX a year,” according to Mr Leung.

Mr Leung also added that researchers in a Taiwanese study have concluded that higher levels of residential petrochemical exposure appeared to elevate the risk of developing leukaemia among individuals between the ages of 20 and 29 years, but did not appear to affect risk among children.

Citing a separate Taiwanese study published in March this year, Mr Leung posited that researchers found that “elderly and female residents living within 10 km of a petrochemical complex had higher carcinogenic exposure and cancers than those living farther away from the complex after the complex had been operating for 10 years”.

He had then placed the findings from the Taiwanese study within a local context: “10km from Pasir Gudang would include the whole of Hougang, almost all of Ang Mo Kio and parts of Serangoon”.

Mr Leung warned that “the longer we wait to be transparent (e.g. about the numerical concentration of airborne VOCs in the North-east), the more our leadership risks losing all accountability down the road”, while suggesting that “the studies that have been done in other countries and cities, the ones highlighted in this article, can and should be done in Singapore” by Singapore universities “to ascertain our situation and risks”.

“Even if the possibility of something bad happening to a resident is as low as winning 4D 1st prize (or as high, depending on how you see it) or as likely as being struck by lightning, Singaporeans still deserve to know,” he concluded.

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