BLACK dust was spewing out from Sembawang Shipyard and casting a pall over the Canberra ward during the 2006 polls. Campaigning in the six HDB blocks facing an open field from the shipyard, opposition candidates from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) accused the Government of irresponsibly building the flats too lose to it. They claimed that the shipyard’s sandblasting activities produced a fine black dust that not only formed a ight coating on the floors and furniture, but could also cause respiratory ailments or cancer.
The black dust, however, failed to turn to gold for the SDP team at the ballot box. Although the People’s Action Party (PAP) won resoundingly, first-time MP Lim Wee Kiak wanted to bury it as an electoral issue once and for all. As he recalls, residents were worried that the black dust might cause their children to get asthma. First, the shipyard was persuaded to build sandblasting facilities indoors, cutting down on the amount of dust. Only big jobs were done outside. Management also agreed not to sandblast if the wind was blowing in the direction of the town.
Then, the eye surgeon and his grassroots leaders examined the health impact of the dust. They did a study of the five PAP Community Foundation kindergartens in the ward, collating the percentage of asthmatic children and the number of medical certificates they took. “If there was a higher rate than the national average, I would definitely investigate further, as something must be wrong. But it was not, it was the same,” Dr Lim says.
Next, the shipyard was asked to furnish the health records of its workers. The reason: If its workers were dying of causes like lung cancer, then something was amiss. Concurrently, a dust sample was sent to the Ministry of Health for analysis. Both tests came back negative: Shipyard workers were dying of the same causes as the rest of the population, and the ministry deemed the dust inert, with no impact on the body if inhaled. But the black dust was still a nuisance. The National Parks Board agreed to plant a green belt of trees between the shipyard and the blocks to catch some of the dust, and the shipyard was persuaded to erect a giant golf net to shield the blasting from the view of residents. “I told them, if the residents can’t see it, they won’t feel it,” Dr Lim says.
Residents say the dust has not entirely disappeared, but acknowledge that the situation has improved drastically in the last few years. Part-time sales officer Steven Ong, 63, used to complain about having to sweep his flat three times a day when he moved in six years ago. “Now, it’s not a big problem any more,” he says.