Air quality testing by GOJ inadequate, says JET

Monday, March 30, 2015

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LOCAL environment watchdog Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) has called into question the accuracy and integrity of the air quality report released by the Ministry of Health (MOH) last week, in which it zeroed in on high levels of the toxic air-pollutant benzene.

The report, which came 12 days after the most recent blaze at the Riverton dump began, said there were "high levels of hazardous substances including benzene", prolonged exposure to which can cause cancers such as leukemia.

It said too, that the substance was "at the highest level ever recorded by the ministry" and attributed that to the burning at the Riverton Waste Disposal Site.

But in a nine-point statement issued yesterday, JET said the health ministry's report was "inadequate", "too general", and "not useful". The NGO took issue with the fact that the ministry did not indicate what levels of the toxic chemical was in the air, what short term effects it has on humans, and which other pollutants were spewed out by the dump's blaze.

"The March 22nd press release from the Ministry of Health identifies benzene (a volatile organic compound -- VOC) as one of several hazardous substances generated by the fire, but gives no actual concentrations. This is not useful in assessing health risks. The MOH was quick to assure the public that there will be no long-term effects from benzene exposure, but does not describe the significant short-term effects. Is the MOH implying that it is acceptable to make people ill for a short period of time? What about compounds other than benzene?," JET asked.

"Apart from benzene, no other toxic substances were mentioned in the press release, which is far too general to be useful," it added.

JET also took the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) to task for what it suggested was an improper location of air quality testing sites. Using NEPA's reports following the dump fires of 2012 and 2014, JET said the results of those tests relied heavily on results from existing monitoring stations operated by various industries with air emission licenses -- Jamaica Public Service, Spanish Town Road; J Wray and Nephew, Spanish Town Road; Petrojam, Marcus Garvey Drive; and Garmex, Marcus Garvey Drive.

"Some of these stations are not at particularly high risk of impacts from a dump fire at Riverton (Garmex and Petrojam, for example)," JET pointed out.

Also, JET said NEPA's reports "suggest that the air pollution levels seem to be within standards or close to within standards for the 2012 and 2014 fires", but contradict the effects residents in the vicinity of the dump reported that they experienced.

"The reports make no attempt to explain these contradictions, and so the results strain credulity for those areas most directly affected. JET therefore questions whether the monitoring stations are appropriately situated. For example, are they at ground level? Are they at the appropriate distances from Riverton? Are they downwind or upwind of Riverton? At what times of day were samplings done and for what duration? Are they sampled at often enough to allow for reliable conclusions to be drawn? Were they selected based on model predictions and has the model been validated?

"One of NEPA's own air quality monitoring station is on the roof of its three-storey building at Caledonia Avenue. Is this why it consistently reports levels that are within standards?" JET queried.

NEPA has not yet released a report on the latest incident.

However, JET said it received a copy of the lab analysis on which the MOH's report was based. It listed 44 substances classified as VOCs, which were found at two sites, one in Half-Way-Tree (HWT) and the other at JPS. The concentration of the substances was 139 micrograms per cubic metre at the HWT site, and 324 micrograms per cubic metre for JPS.

But JET claims NEPA has no standards for VOC.

"Benzene, ethylbenzene and cumene were approximately 10 times higher at the JPSCo site than at HWT, while toluene, octane, xylenes and styrene were approximately twice as concentrated as at the JPSCo site. NEPA has no standards for these compounds. Are they toxic? At what levels are they a threat to human health? What about the other 37 compounds listed?," the JET statement asked.

The environmental group pointed out, too, that the impact of dump fires is compounded by the open burning of trash as well as by industrial and vehicle emissions, the latter which, by NEPA's own admission, is currently unregulated.

"We further call on the Ministry of Health to immediately undertake health surveys for those communities in closest proximity to the Riverton dump, and on NEPA to be more proactive in protecting the air that all citizens breathe," JET said.


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