Just why managing waste efficiently needs immediate answers and lasting solutions is evident from the fire at Mumbai’s Deonar dumping ground that took nearly 10 days to be controlled. Days after the blaze, the smoke billowing from the mounds of trash has been a health hazard with the civic body shutting down 74 schools and the Out Patient Department of several private and government dispensaries witnessing a rise in the number of patients suffering from throat irritation and other respiratory issues.
Garbage dumped here is often mixed waste – with paper, plastic containers, bottles, cans and at times electronic goods. Moreover when it accumulates with decomposable wastes from food, dead animals, construction debris and even industrial waste then it is definitely a serious health concern.
Burning even small amounts of plastic and rubber releases chemicals that are unsafe, reveals Dr Hemant Purohit, Deputy Director of National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI). Open burning is an inefficient combustion process that releases significant amounts of air pollutants and ash, and dense white or black smoke, the scientist explained.
The air contaminants released depend on the material being burned and the conditions of the fire. The smoke may include aldehydes, acids, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins, furans, other organics and volatilised heavy metals. For example, treated wood wastes may release arsenic, PVC plastics may release hydrogen chloride, wood painted with lead-based paints may release lead and such, adds Pradeep Mulay, founder of PASSCO Environmental Solutions Limited.
The ash from the waste may be contaminated with toxic chemicals such as dioxins and furans, PAH’s, heavy metals and other potentially carcinogenic compounds. Some of the ash will be carried off into the atmosphere with the smoke plume while the rest will remain behind after the fire has been extinguished. The air quality is largely affected and pollutants like particulate matter PM 10 and PM 2.5 remain suspended in the air. Inhaling particulate matter 2.5 (very fine particles) are even more dangerous than PM 10 as they directly enter the lungs, NEERI scientists explained.
The greatest health risk from the open burning of garbage at a waste disposal ground is for those closest to the fire who may inhale the smoke.
Other individuals on-site and off-site may also be affected, depending on factors such as the distance to the fire, exposure duration, amount and type of material burned, individual sensitivity, points Dr Dilip Sarda, former President of Indian Medical Association (IMA), Maharashtra.
The pollutants are all toxic to humans depending on their concentration and may cause irritation, skin and respiratory problems. Some are carcinogenic. Those individuals with respiratory problems such as asthma or with allergies may be even more sensitive to the smoke, he explained.
At Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) assistant secretary (technical) P K Mirashe said that the main concerns with the open burning of garbage at waste disposal grounds are related to the potential effects of human health and environment and some unusual problems. `We have issued guidelines to the municipal bodies towards effective control. It is important as the smoke from waste disposal ground fires may reduce visibility on local roads. This has the potential to cause traffic accidents,’ he pointed out.