Burning waste dangerous to health, environment
Smoke from Retirement dump covers the community of Retirement in St James on Tuesday morning.

ENVIRONMENTALISTS are again imploring Jamaicans not to burn their garbage as this could have immediate and long-term detrimental health impacts.

"Don't burn, it's as simple as that, because you are impacting your health and everybody else's health in close proximity and also you are affecting the environment, and even if you don't see an immediate impact, eventually it will affect your quality of life and the environment in which we depend and live," said CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie.

The environmental scientist told the Jamaica Observer that whatever is being burnt has the potential to cause asthma while the long-term exposure to consistent burning of certain chemicals found in garbage could potentially result in more serious issues such as cancer.

"From the environmental impact, we are also looking at the fact that you're polluting the atmosphere and resulting in emissions, and while it might be minor, it does add to the emissions that are contributing to the climate crisis, so we want to avoid burning due to both the health and environmental impacts," said Rodriguez-Moodie.

She noted that plastics are a key part of the health and environmental impacts as they contain cancer-causing agents and when burnt, the emissions also contribute to the climate crisis.

Rodriquez-Moodie said one major factor is that Jamaicans do not generally separate waste, so when the garbage gets to the dump everything is there and some of these things produce harmful chemicals.

"I do know at Riverton [City Landfill], my understanding is that they do try to separate some of the hazardous things. So they try to separate tyres and asbestos materials, but I don't know if that is done at all of the other dumps," she said.

Rodriguez-Moodie said many times people do not understand the health implications of burning waste.

"We all have a right to a healthy environment which includes clean air and clean water and we should be careful how our actions are violating those rights," she stressed.

Biologist Damion Whyte concurred that people may feel it is harmless to burn trash, especially at home. He underscored that the burning of garbage produces smoke which contain small matter that cannot be seen by the naked eye but which has significant impact in terms of allergies, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Turning to burning of garbage at the island's dumps, Whyte pointed out that there are all kinds of matter that have been dumped — plastics, painted stuff, household items which have harmful hydrocarbons.

"When those are burnt, they give off nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and volatile organic chemicals. Some of the organic chemicals produce things that are cancerous.

"With some of these landfills, remember that some of them store chemicals for years — all kinds of hydrocarbons that you and I don't know about might be there, and when these things are burnt, they go in the environment and it affects the animals just like it affects us. We eat some of these animals, we drink some of the water and we inhale the air," Whyte said.

He also appealed to people who burn waste at the dump to discontinue the practice. "It may not affect you presently, but your children and their children may be impacted," he stressed.

Whyte, who is also a conservation biologist PhD student at The University of the West Indies, Mona, said he was particularly concerned about people who burn metals for the scrap metal trade, which sometimes involves the burning of tyres.

"There needs be [greater] thought on the right way to do it because it isn't healthy if it is burning and it is affecting everybody. When you burn the tyres, everybody is coughing and you are near it and its affecting you."

Whyte suggested that the people who burn items for scarp metals need guidance which could come from the Government or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) teaching them the proper way to carry out the activity so that it doesn't affect their health nor those of the people in close proximity.

He also recommended that instead of householders burning their garbage — such as ground provision peels, fruit peels, leaves — at their homes, that they compost it.

The matter of the harmful effects of burning garbage has resurfaced in light of the latest fire at Retirement dump in St James on Sunday night. National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) Executive Director Audley Gordon told the Observer that based on the fire's sudden and violent nature, the fire was the work of arsonists.

Noting that the disposal facilities around the island have been tampered with on more than one occasion, Gordon said that "sometimes it's just plain mischief".

"It's unfortunate and we ask people to desist from things like that because it's very costly to put out fires, it's very costly to get these equipment to work overtime...We have to have men and women working in very tough situations to manage and put out these fires. We really wish we don't have to deal with incidents like these and we ask that people be more responsible," Gordon said.

BY ALECIA SMITH Senior staff reporter smitha@jamaicaobserver.com

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