Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lynas (Part I): Scientific Evidence???

I read with great amusement of Najib's response towards recent Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL) protest over the operation of Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Gebeng, Kuantan. He said that the public fear over this issue is imaginary and based on scientific evidence, LAMP will not adversely impact the safety of the residents and the environment  [1]. He is not alone, our Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai has reported to say that there's no scientific evidence to prove that LAMP is unsafe [2]. Scientific evidence seems to become the 'template answer' for most if not all of the other Barisan Nasional leaders when asked about Lynas issue. 

I wonder if they really understand what it meant by scientific evidence in safety and health impact context. Let me 'curi tulang' a bit and use the definition of scientific evidence from the Wikipedia (as it is suffice to give readers a general idea): 

" Scientific evidence is evidence which serves to either support or counter a scientific theory or hypothesis. Such evidence is expected to be empirical evidence and in accordance with scientific method......the strength of scientific evidence is generally based on the results of statistical analysis and the strength of scientific controls."  [3]

In Lynas context, when we need to prove scientifically that Lynas is safe or unsafe (hypothesis), there should be a statistical analysis on the historical safety records of rare earth plants that use the same technology and raw materials, controlling/weighting the variables such as socio-political, regulatory, geological etc. 

In proving safety or health impact, scientific evidence should be based on the statistical analysis of the historical safety data and not on what the scientists or engineers say about the technology of the process involved.  

For example, when World Health Organization studied whether telecommunication towers will increase the likelihood of cancers in the neighborhood, it based its justification from a large number of researches that statistically analyze the correlation between telecommunication towers and cancer cases in the neighborhood (the hypothesis was proved false) [4]. That is what we call safety and health impact scientific evidence and it is definitely far from what Najib and his team have in mind when they shouted confidently scientific evidence. 

Nevertheless, unlike telecommunication towers, for this case, there will not be scientific evidence of statistical significance to prove either hypothesis - LAMP is safe or unsafe. This is because the sampling size is small (not many rare earth plants around, with majority of them in China with poor record of information transparency) and the raw materials and location of rare earth plants differ and therefore the risks involved in transportation and waste management. 

May I suggest this, that Lynas and SMSL are at equal footing when it comes to scientific evidence, i.e, both can't prove their hypothesis, either safe or unsafe, with statistical significance. 

In fact, in term of proving the safety of a rare earth plant 'scientifically', SMSL may fair better than BN. According to the historical safety records of the rare earth plants, many have adversely affected the health of the community around the plants. However, as I've mentioned earlier, the sampling size is so small (total number of rare earth plants in the world that safety data is available is very limited) and the conditions of those plants are different than LAMP,  we cannot make a 'scientific' conclusion that it is unsafe. 

What I want to point out is this, scientifically, both sides cannot prove whether it is safe or unsafe. The plant process flow, mechanism of risk control and the different local/international agency reports are the tools that the government and society use to make a collective decision whether to go ahead with the project.  

I've recently been a bit caught up with my business and personal issues and slow in writing blog.  However, after seeing the ignorance of our ruling leaders towards the Himpunan Hijau, their arrogance of being scientifically more superior and their attempt to paint this effort as a mere politicization of the opposition, I have decided to write a bit so readers of this blog can understand whether Lynas issues is a mere fear mongering or if it is a legitimate concern that a responsible government should address. 

So for the following 1 to 2 articles,  I am going to touch on different aspects of Lynas issue. To remain objective, I'll not be referring any articles from SMSL group and important references will be made so the readers will be able to trace the source of information.  Lynas issue although is a very intuitive one (to oppose LAMP), it takes a bit of time to write in a more scientific manner. So please bear with me if it takes days before you see another piece. :)