Greetings from Malaysia! I’m here working on a reporting project about 17 elements at the bottom of the periodic table known as the rare earths, which are key to manufacturing all kinds of cutting-edge technology—from smartphones and laptops to wind turbines and hybrid-car motors to defense technology, including tank engines, radar and sonar systems, and navigation systems in smart bombs.
Since rare earths occur naturally with the radioactive elements thorium and uranium, safety is a major concern with using them. Engineers have expressed reservations about the safety of the Lynas refinery’s design, as the New York Times has reported. Some Malaysians suspect that Lynas is choosing to refine in Malaysia in order to sidestep more stringent environmental regulations at home.
You can’t blame them for their concerns: Malaysia has hosted a rare-earth refinery before, with some painful results. From 1979-92, the Japanese company Mitsubishi ran a plant called Asia Rare Earth, where it processed the materials it needed to sell electronics to markets all over the world. In the years since, nearby villagers have seen birth defects and eight cases of childhood leukemia. Mitsubishi is still dealing with the mess; the New York Times called it “the largest radiation cleanup yet in the rare earth industry.”
Continue reading at Will Malaysians Get Cancer for Your iPhone or Prius?