Last week, we spoke about the importance of the safe management of hazardous waste and what is required under the Hazardous Waste Management Regulations. This week, we will continue the theme of waste management and will focus on the burning of waste, a growing problem which poses significant negative impacts to human health and the environment. The burning of waste—sometimes referred to as opening burning or backyard burning— is an environmentally poor waste management option. You may have had the disturbing experience of being in your home when suddenly everything is in a cloud of smoke. As we travel through communities all across Guyana, we often can see thick smoke billowing, fires near electric poles, sometimes causing worry that a home is on fire. Open fires are dangerous to public health and the environment. Waste commonly burned at or nearby homes and business premises may include paper, cardboard, textiles, plastics, household and industrial chemicals, food, and yard clippings.
Why do people burn their trash?
The excuses may range from the high cost of garbage disposal services in their community, to the absence of these services, or not wanting to haul their waste to local disposal sites. Nowadays, with the exception of some rural areas, many communities have access to relatively low-cost garbage pickup services. Some people, though, may simply not understand the dangers of burning their waste and thus see it as an easy cost effective method.
Burning waste is a health hazard
Burning waste can result in the release of highly toxic pollutants into your home or environment and some people are at greater risk of being affected. Pollutants include particulate matter, nitric oxides, dioxins and many other dangerous chemicals. Some particulate emissions that are commonly found in smoke are small enough to enter the respiratory system. This means that you can simply breathe in dangerous fine particles. Contact with pollutants that can have immediate effects such as rashes, nausea and headaches, and long term health effects such as asthma, emphysema and other respiratory illnesses, nervous system, kidney, or liver damage, and reproductive or developmental disorders.
Dioxins can be produced in harmful quantities during burning
Dioxins are a group of hundreds of chemically-related compounds that are persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These chemicals are members of three closely related families: chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (CDDs), chlorinated dibenzofurans (CDFs), and certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
CDFs and CDDs are not usually created intentionally, but as a result of human activities such as burning household garbage. Some types of dioxins may result from natural processes such as forest fires. According to the US EPA, dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones. These compounds though not present in the materials before they are burnt, are produced and introduced into the environment. Pollutants are then released at the ground level where they can be readily inhaled, deposited on plants and released into waterways and can enter the food chain. More dioxins are produced in a burn barrel as compared to large incinerators because of low oxygen and lower temperature.
Open fires are especially dangerous near populated areas
These include highways, airports, health-care facilities and other smoke-sensitive areas. Children, older people and people with heart problems and respiratory ailments like asthma are sensitive to these pollutants.
Burning also threatens natural resources
and contributes to climate change
Harmful contaminants from burning affect, water, air, wildlife, and natural habitats and can destroy soil nutrients and reduce fertility. When surface runoff increases after burning, it may carry suspended soil particles, dissolved inorganic nutrients, and other materials into adjacent trenches, streams and lakes reducing water quality. Smoke from the burning of vegetation consists of small particles (particulate) of ash, partly consumed fuel, and liquid droplets. Other combustion products include invisible gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and small quantities of nitrogen oxides. These substances, when present in the atmosphere, are powerful greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. There is an even greater risk of fires under the warm temperatures and decreased rainfall that we sometimes experience; we should therefore avoid setting fires in vegetated areas and immediately put out fires that start spontaneously.
The Environmental Protection Agency encourages citizens to desist from the unauthorised burning of waste. To dispose of waste by incineration requires an environmental permit. It is an offence under the Environmental Protection (Air Quality) regulations, to emit any air contaminant related to industry, commerce, agriculture, or any institution, without approval from the EPA with penalties ranging from $75, 000 to $500,000 and to imprisonment for six months. Contact your local authority about safe and proper waste disposal methods. Be vigilant and exercise caution when around open fires. Use caution when disposing of smoking materials or open flames like barbeque and cooking fireside.
Permits can be obtained through the Environmental Protection Agency Offices at Ganges Street Sophia, Georgetown or Whim Village, Berbice.
To report fires relating to the burning of waste please call your local NDC or the EPA on 225-5471-2/225-6048. You can also email us at [email protected] or send us a message on Facebook.