Residents in Chaah never wear white shirts any more. If they do, the white shirts will turn spotted or speckled from the black dust in the air. It must be horrible to live with the constant idea that one is always dirty and will never be clean.

Young children suffer from breathing problems. People feel unhealthy and frustrated: “You clean and you clean and it stays dirty. You reach a point where you don’t bother any more.” It’s a losing battle for the residents in this small town of about 10,000 people.

For 20 years, residents have breathed in the pollutants emitted from a palm oil mill, about 5 kilometres from their houses. Black smoke constantly billows into the sky. Residents believe that the dust and particles are caused by open burning at night from the boilers in the mill. Many have moved away but others stay on because they have no choice. Repeated complaints to the authorities have fallen on deaf ears.

Clean air and a healthy environment should be universal human rights. Yet people all over the world continue to pay the price for development and economic progress. While a limited few rake in the profit, the majority – the weak and the powerless – continue to suffer environmental degradation and its consequences on health and well-being. When will industry players clean up their act? Never, if they are not made to do so. The tragedy that unfolds in this small town in Malaysia is an old broken recorder playing the same tunes in many parts of the world. The world is plunged deeper into grey and black hues, as white is obliterated from people’s lives.