Riverton is a public health hazard, say local experts

BY SHARLENE HENDRICKS
Staff reporter
hendrickss@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, June 23, 2019

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Gone are the days when you could legitimately say you are going outside to take some fresh air. But is the air we breathe clean air? The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that up to 2016 — some 80 per cent of people living in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed the standard limits.

In 2012, it was estimated that seven million people worldwide died prematurely for having developed illnesses related to air pollution.

The main culprit is PM 2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrograms in diameter), emitted primarily from diesel powered vehicles and the burning of coal, kerosene, and biomass which is something like let's say a huge pile of garbage. Sounds familiar?

In Jamaica, the fires at Riverton City dump have become a proverbial staple, one that local experts are calling a serious public health hazard. Clinical toxicologist and associate professor at the University of Technology, Jamaica Dr Alverston Bailey, puts it on the same level as that of a volcano erupting.

“The Riverton City site is not a landfill. It is a dump. It is in close proximity to the Duhaney, and Ferry rivers as well as the Rio Cobre. The groundwater and surface water is at risk of contamination from leachates (water that has percolated through a solid and leached out some of the constituents) from the dump. The risk posed by the fires is of particular concern because the dump is located in close proximity to densely populated residential areas.

“The impact on health will not necessarily be manifested during or immediately following the fire. What about those that are hidden in the smoke, like dioxin. Dioxin causes a variety of diseases. The risk assessment is clear. The dump is hazardous to our health,” said Dr Bailey, who was speaking at the Medical Association of Jamaica's 2019 symposium held recently in St Andrew.

The theme of this year's event was 'Environmental Impact on Health: A Clear and Present Danger'.

Dr Bailey, in looking at the impact of dump fires on human health, revealed shockingly that in 2015, over 3,000 people were seen and treated for respiratory symptoms in the Corporate Area.

“The majority were seen at the Bustamante Children's Hospital. The median age of those affected was 13 years, and asthmatics were primarily affected. Interestingly, the number of patients seen was very high between the 13th and the 19th of March each year. This is self-explanatory. Children account for the majority of the patients and the main symptom was bronchospasm,” said Dr Bailey.

He connected this to the fact that there is a proliferation of noxious gases coming from the Riverton City dump fires yearly, which amounts to a total of 415 fires between 1996 and 2015, according to records from the Jamaica Fire Brigade. To make matters worse, the associate professor showed that the levels at which the citizenry is exposed to these fumes exceed international standards.

“In 2014, approximately 200,000 chemicals were released in the air. The sulfur dioxide (SO2) released in the 2014 fire was again higher than WHO guidelines, ranging between 50 to over 150 and nitrogen dioxide again ranging from 50 up to 100 microgram per metre cube. The particulates released in 2014 indicated that Spanish Town Road was exposed to large amounts of particulates, up to 81 microgram per metre cube. The PM10 (particulate matter 10 micrometres or less in diametre) levels were very high during the fire.”

Dr Bailey showed that in 2015 the SO2 was 451 microgram per metre cube, while the nitrogen dioxide was 82. He revealed further that, in some instances, the emissions exceeded local standards which are nowhere near international standards.

“NEPA evaluated sulfur dioxide which range from 150 to about 50. But the NEPA guidelines have nothing to do with WHO guidelines. The WHO guideline for SO2 is 50, and NEPA guideline is 280. For nitrogen dioxide, the WHO guideline is 24, NEPA's guideline is not available.”

“NEPA (National Environment and Planning Agency) also evaluates for PM10 and the average recorded in 2010 fire was 167. The WHO guideline for PM10 is 50. NEPA's guideline is 150. In 2018, the sulfur dioxide was far higher than recommended guidelines, while nitrogen dioxide levels were so high that it beat the Jamaican guidelines by significant amount. A lot of benzene and toluene was released. There were also significant levels of PM10 in August last year, and PM 2.5 ambient levels were also significantly high,” said Dr Bailey.

In his summary of findings, Dr Bailey showed that the major toxicants detected at the site were nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, benzene, toluene, other chemicals and primarily PM10. And to capture just how many Jamaicans are inhaling the toxic fumes annually, he pointed again to the communities in and around the Kingston Metropolitan area as well as Portmore and some other parts of St Catherine.

Dr Bailey named Riverton Meadows, Berger Paints, Jamaica Public Service Company, Seaview Gardens, Cooreville Gardens, Cooreville Basic School, Weymouth Drive and Riverton City being situated in very high-risk areas, and added Washington Gardens, Duhaney Park, Edith Dalton James High, Hendricks Basic School and Duhaney Park Police Station high-risk areas.

“In the very high-risk areas, almost quarter million persons reside. This is 22 per cent of the population residing in the parish, and females account for 55 per cent of this total. In the high risk areas, we have approximately 6,398 residing and females account for 53 per cent. And in the zone of influence, we have a total population of over 800,000 Jamaicans residing in this area, living in total ignorance of the dangers that they face 37 per cent of the population in this area are children and the elderly. The main groups of persons affected were those between the ages 18 to 64 years old.”

In his recommendations, Dr Bailey argued that, “NEPA should provide appropriate air sampling for all of these chemicals which they are not testing at this point in time. Jamaica's air quality standards must be updated to meet international standards, and the government announced an expanded air quality monitoring programme in 2018; they should fast-track this. NEPA should also focus its air quality monitoring on PM2.5, not PM10. We also recommend that an appropriate design landfill must be established.

“I argue that the Riverton City site should be closed as soon as possible. I recommend that the citizens who were affected in 2015 should be followed up [with] and given assistance if they have developed long-term complications. I am arguing that the citizens in the high-impact area should be relocated in the event of a fire. To me, it is no different than a volcano erupting. And those in the moderate and low-impact areas should be informed of the risk they face. All inhabitants in high-impact areas should be registered and followed up,” said Dr Bailey.

What right do we have

The problem of air pollution seems to pale in comparison to so many other challenges that Jamaicans face. But long-time environmentalist and now retired CEO of Jamaica Environment Trust, Diana McCaulay Hanley, called the failure of enforcing international air quality standards a breach of constitutional rights.

“In Jamaica, we have a constitutional right to a healthy environment. Our daily living experience makes this hard to believe. The Jamaican Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms reads, 'The right to enjoy healthy and productive environment free from the threat or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage.”

“I think that this means that our constitutional rights have been breached by the mere existence of our unmanaged dumps, whether or not they are burning; by the mere existence of motor vehicles without effective emission controls; by the mere existence of cane fires. This has not yet been tested in our courts, but it needs to be,” said McCaulay Hanley, who was delivering the public lecture of the annual symposium.

She also highlighted the issue of Jamaica still not having a properly managed landfill, while also failing to implement standards of operation at current dump sites.

“There are eight so-called approved waste disposal sites in Jamaica. Seven are operating without the permits required by law. Riverton has a permit issued last year. Still, Riverton meets none of the requirements of modern waste management approaches. It is covered from time to time, but there is no capture of leachates, there is no capture of the air emissions, there is no sorting of waste, it is unsecured, un-fenced. It is a serious health hazard to everyone who lives in the Kingston metropolitan area and St Catherine.”

“There are also the illegal activities like the constant tyre fires around Riverton. The response of both NEPA and the National Solid Waste Management Authority has been, 'well, it's not on the dump', as if those areas outside of the dump are some sort of sacrifice zones to which we are all consigned. And, in so doing, the Government of Jamaica has abdicated its responsibility for our constitutional right to a healthy and productive environment. It fails us regarding the very air that we breathe.”

In this vein, McCaulay Hanley deemed framed air pollution as not just an environmental problem, but also a matter of justice.

“While I support the recent efforts by the Ministry of Health and Wellness on nutrition and exercise, I would like to point out that at least we have some choice about what we eat and how we move our bodies. We have no choice about the air that we breathe.

“Air pollution is a hazard, it is not a nuisance. For those who live close to our largely unregulated dumps, in the sacrifice zones, their health is affected on a regular basis. This is a justice issue, because although poor air quality affects everyone, it is the poor who are most seriously affected,” said McCaulay Hanley.

The Riverton City dump covers 125 acres, and 60 per cent of the waste generated on the island is deposited on that site.


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