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Smoke from burning rubbish is slow, sure killer

KAREN DUNNE U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, Macuata
Friday, November 24, 2006

A study conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency found that open fire smoke, especially from burning rubbish, contains 350-times more cancer-causing substances than cigarette smoke.

And, as a US Peace Corps volunteer who has been serving in Macuata for more than a year now, one of the things that worries me is the burning of rubbish.

Is it habitual, lack of awareness, carelessness or just an impulsive action?

Whatever it is, burning at all levels must come to a stop!

Its short-term impact is affecting the ecosystems in vulnerable communities while its long-term effect is a national health concern.

Almost every day we see and smell the smoke from a burning pile of rubbish, which is a common practice in most parts of Fiji, whether you're in Suva or in the rural parts of the Northern Division.

But, what most of us don't realise is that this smoke can be deadly to our health.

Open burning of rubbish is banned in most developed countries but after watching this occur in Fiji, I was prompted to research the topic in detail.

The resulting document, Are We Burning Our Rubbish or Ourselves?, discusses the toxic (poisonous) effects from burning rubbish and details the diseases that can occur as a result of breathing the smoke from these open fires.

Burning plastics are the most problematic, the most dangerous being Poly-Vinyl Chloride, commonly known as PVC.

When burnt, PVC releases toxins that are linked to diseases such as cancer.

The toxic smoke from open fires come from burning plastics, treated wood, white paperboard, slick or bleached papers, foam mattresses and furniture foam.

Even if a healthy adult does not suffer immediate effects such as headaches or nausea, the damage can be more serious the longer you are exposed to the smoke.

The effects can include damage to your lungs, nervous system, kidneys, and liver.

Chronic diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema and cancer, which can take many years to develop, can be caused by exposure to smoke and toxins.

Children can be at much greater risk. Because of their body size, they inhale more air per pound of body mass than do adults, and can absorb a proportionately larger "dose" of toxins.

Children's bodies are more susceptible to damage from the heavy metals found in the smoke of rubbish fires because their nervous systems are not fully developed. Poly-Vinyl Chloride, or PVC, is a commonly used plastic for vinyl flooring (sometimes called carpeting or lyno), drain pipes, guttering, shampoo bottles, packaging, and thousands of other products.

Burning PVC and related plastics produce carbon monoxide, dioxins and chlorinated furans which are two of the most toxic products known because the dose that can cause disease is lower than that for any other man-made chemical.

These are linked to cancer and birth defects.

The health risks associated with burning rubbish come not only from inhalation of the pollutants released into the air but from the consumption of contaminated food when these toxic particles are deposited in water, soil, crops and farms.

As dioxins from open fire smoke drifts away to eventually settle on nearby fields, it can be eaten by cows and other animals where it is concentrated in their fat.

Some is then excreted with the milk while the rest remains in the animal's fat.

When humans consume dairy products and meat they end up with the long-lived dioxin in their own bodies, with an excess risk of developing cancer because of the dioxin contaminant exposure.

Other health effects can include asthma and chronic bronchitis, nervous system damage, developmental problems in children, birth defects and miscarriages, skin rashes, as well as persistent coughs and throat irritations.

The problem with some of the common rubbish items is that they can take centuries to biodegrade (decay naturally), sometimes lasting forever.

If these items are not disposed of properly, they pollute the land, rivers, the sea and the air we breathe.

Rubbish disposal is a concern for everyone.

Burning, though it seems to be the simplest solution, it is the most harmful.

But, dumping or littering, another common practice, is not the solution.

The items that take the longest to biodegrade are quickly filling the streets, rivers, and the sea from dumping and littering.

A plastic bottle, for example, the most common item littering our landscape, is estimated to last "forever," longer than a glass bottle, which can last up to a million years.

One of the most common items that contribute to the litter stream is plastic bags, which take between 20 and 1000 years to break down in the environment.

Alternate options are to say no to plastic bags at the store (this can be challenging for store employees) and bring your own reusable cloth bag. If you have no other option than to accept plastic bags at the checkout, make sure at least eight items are in each bag. The best option is to reuse and recycle.

But to solve this problem the Government should introduce appropriate environment related legislations to stop burning and reduce use of PVC related items as well as plastic bags and bottles.

Some soft drink companies buy back their plastic bottles and aluminum cans if you bring them to their collection points in the major towns. Check with your local vendor for locations, collection times and rates.

This is a step in the right direction for recycling.

However, most people who travel by bus find it difficult to bring bottles and cans to the collections points.

Vendors can improve this by adding collection points at the stores where their products are sold.

It would be a socially responsible way of dealing with the vast amount of plastic bottles and cans that are littering our landscape, clogging drainage ways, and filling the rivers and sea. Bottles and cans can be collected when they are doing their sales and deliveries, thereby saving on any additional fuel costs and making it easy for the consumer to help in the recycling process. It is everyone's responsibility to ensure that burning stops.

Some evident effects of burning seen in Fiji is air pollution, soil erosion, massive burning of cane fields and pine fires.

Imposition of laws with high penalties, court action and awareness is the answer to this deadly problem.

The views are based on research done by Karen Dunne and the opinions expressed in this article are her own.