The Danger Of The Slow Burn

How many times do we wrinkle our noses and wonder what that terrible smell could be? It’s usually a small, smoky fire nearby heaped with plastic bags, bottles and other household waste. Nothing that smells so foul could be good for us, and we’re just beginning to learn how harmful the fumes of burning garbage can be.
Recent research indicates that burning household garbage at low temperatures can have a severe impact on the sexual development of children. The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, published an article in May 2001 stating that teenage boys living near incinerators had smaller testicles and females had smaller breasts than those living in rural areas. They can’t yet measure how much of the stuff you have to breathe in over what period of time, but a correlation has been established.
In the past 40-50 years, male reproductive functions have deteriorated measurably worldwide. Danish researchers led by Dr. Neils Skakkebaek call this Testicular Dysgenisis Syndrome (TDS). "TDS may be caused by genetic or environmental factors or a combination of both," states Dr. Skakkebaek. "As the rise in incidence of the various symptoms of TDS has occurred rapidly over few generations, we must consider that adverse environmental factors such as hormone disrupters could be to blame." Hormone disrupters, also known as gender-bending chemicals, are compounds used in paints, pesticides and detergents that can disrupt natural hormones in the body, causing birth defects and other problems in humans.
These two studies are of more than passing interest to us here in Bali, where fumes from burning plastic and contaminated wastewater are part of our daily lives. This research was done in Europe and North America; let’s examine it in the Balinese context. Modern refuse combustors have tall stacks, specially designed combustion chambers and high-efficiency flue gas cleaning systems that minimize the impact of emissions associated with waste combustion. We don’t have these in Bali – garbage is dumped in landfills, down river banks, off the beach at Sanur or burned. Open burning is an inefficient combustion process and releases significant amounts of air pollutants, ash and dense white or black smoke. According to a study done by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, open household waste fires burn at low temperatures and can result in particulate emissions, heavy metal vapors, acid gases and other pollutants. Most of these are highly toxic and some can cause cancer.
The open burning of residential solid waste in Bali means that toxins are released at ground level. Unlike incinerated waste, fire in a barrel or pile does not burn hot enough to destroy the poisonous substances released by burning materials. Since there are no safeguards to capture the toxins in the smoke, they are released into the air. 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. These pollutants are all toxic to humans. The ash from the waste may be contaminated with toxic chemicals such as dioxins and furans, PAHs, 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, polluting the soil and, potentially, the groundwater.
The greatest health risk from the open burning of garbage is to 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, etc. The concentration of gases or particulates and the duration of exposure can have an acute effect on your level of risk. Emissions from a burn become mixed with surrounding air, diluting them enough that, in most cases, you can walk away without any obvious side effects. However, some of these substances can immediately cause eye irritation, lung irritation, asthma, or restricted breathing. Children are most at risk, since they breathe more quickly than adults and absorb up to six times as much contamination.
A US Environmental Protection Agency study showed that garbage burned in a barrel or heap emits twice as much furans, 20 times more dioxin and 40 times more particulates than professional incineration with air pollution controls. Burning plastics, particularly PVC, results in emission of the deadly poison dioxin. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals known to man, and it is released by burning common household trash at low temperatures. Dioxin and other chemicals are totally invisible, and their health effects are not immediate. Benzopyrene is another potent carcinogen produced by low temperature fires. Open fire smoke contains 70 parts per million of carcinogenic benzopyrenes, about 350 times higher than cigarette smoke.
PVC especially can cause an immediate health risk. Less immediate, but more lasting, are the environmental dangers that occur. The ash and soot, which may be dispersed by the wind or leached by water, will contain toxic contaminants. These toxins will then be leached from any ash remaining at the site. This could lead to the contamination of surface water or ground water, and unquestionably to soil contamination.
This is all pretty depressing. What can we do? Be aware of the hazards. Inform friends and staff. Realize that if we are not already separating and recycling plastics in our homes and offices, then we are part of the problem. Soon I’ll be doing a story on a whole subculture that exists around recycling plastic here in Bali.
Meanwhile, if you have testicles or know someone who does, you might want to spread the word as far as you can locally. "Shrinking testicles is just another item in the growing litany of ailments connected with the burning of mixed rubbish," said Tara Buakamsri, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, in a recent statement.
My next door neighbour has recently refined his waste management system — he brings his plastic bag of garbage into our mutual parking lot, pours in a jigger of kerosene and sets it alight. Then he stands over it, inhaling the fumes as he watches the plastic melt and the tins blacken. He’d probably make an interesting case study for a researcher with a set of calipers.
Copyright © 2001 Greenspeak