KINGSTON, Jamaica, March 17, 2015 (AMG) — A fire at the Riverton Dump, managed by the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) intensified last week, covering 5 acres – double its initial size – on Wednesday when it started. The fire was aggravated by strong winds, challenging approximately seventy firefighters assisted by eight fire trucks and four tractors, working tirelessly to extinguish the increasingly recurring fires.

Thick smoke covered the city of Kingston since Wednesday, while also affecting residents of Harbour View, Duhaney Park, Meadowbrook, Hope Pastures and the University of the West Indies and University of Technology campuses.

The Jamaica Fire Brigade Public Relations Director, Emilio Ebanks, asked the public to prepare for further discomfort that will inevitably occur due to the worsening problem, saying only that the situation was challenging. “We understand the circumstance but we are doing the best we can”, Ebanks said.

Opposition spokesman, Desmond McKenzie, blamed the Government’s lack of properly implemented waste management programmes for the fire. In the absence of guidelines to determine the manner in which different types of waste are disposed of, the Riverton Dump becomes the home of a mixture of industrial, commercial and organic waste. While the combination of these different types of waste can result in spontaneous combustion, arsonists are faulted for the start of the frequent fires seen at Riverton.

Said McKenzie, “the local government ministry, through the NSWMA and the Ministry of Health, have failed the people of Kingston with their lacklustre response to the fire which is now raging at the Riverton City landfill. This is not the first fire and it seems they are getting more frequent. It seems they don’t know how to do the job they are paid to do.”

7114532909_71f138b3f4_kRiverton communities, Image credit: IPS News Agency

Long term health effects of the Riverton dump

  • Public health risks from unmanaged dumps like Riverton are: pollution of the Duhaney River, which is used for drinking and bathing by people living nearby; pollution of Hunts Bay, which scientists have called ‘The Dead Zone’ – heavy metal contamination from cadmium, manganese, lead and pesticides. Studies of cadmium levels in the livers of Jamaicans at autopsy have found high levels, second only to Japan and nearly twice as high as levels in Austria, Australia, the UK and Sweden
  • The toxic smoke from the average dump fire contains a wide range of air pollutants, including particulates, carbon monoxide, aldehydes (eg formaldehyde), acrolein, hydrogen bromide, hydrogen chloride,hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen flouride, nitrogen oxides, phenol, sulfur dioxides, dioxins and furans
  • Health impacts of the air pollution from dump fires: increased risk of death among elderly and those with pre-existing respiratory and cardiac illnesses, infant mortality, low birth weight of babies, onset of childhood asthma, coughs, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, burning in eyes, nose and throat, dizziness, weakness, confusion, nausea, disorientation, exposure to known carcinogens. The seriousness of these depends on how close people are to the fire and the length of exposure
  • Raising animals on the dump is also dangerous due to the bioaccumulation of heavy metals such as lead and mercury into them, which then make their way into the bodies of people who consume them

— Source: Jamaica Environment Trust

Increased respiratory complaints: A hazy morning greeted occupants of the city on Friday as thick grey smoke from the landfill loomed. A Callaloo Mews resident complained of trouble breathing as a result of the smoke which ultimately forced residents out of their homes. While persons were advised to remain indoors with doors and windows closed. Residents who chanced going outdoors were reported to have wet clothes covering their noses and mouths.

Bustamante Hospital for Children reported an increased number of children coming in with respiratory problems, while several more were turned back due to lack of capacity to treat all patients. Last April, the fire at the landfill burned for almost two weeks, resulting in an increased number of patients with respiratory issues at health clinics.

A government study done three years ago determined that benzene, a highly carcinogenic organic compound released during the fires, was three times World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

Chief of the non profit organization Jamaica Environment Trust, Diana McCaulay said in an email, “the dump fire is a serious risk to public health and it is simply not enough to say the fire will soon be out. The people responsible should be held accountable.”

Waste management questions: Bemoaning the waste management practices in Jamaica, McCaulay explained to media sources that Jamaica had no sanitary landfills – and that all waste disposal sites were simple dumps:

They are not properly secured, there is no collection of gases or leachate, they are not lined, animals have full access, garbage pickers (including children) work in unsanitary and dangerous conditions and they all burn several times a year, although not at the scale now being experienced in Kingston.

Sixty percent of Jamaica’s waste is dumped at Riverton, accounting for an estimate 600,000 tonnes of unsorted waste per week. McCaully stated that the dump was also in close proximity to low-income housing communities, as she ridiculed the formulaic responses to successive Riverton fire incidences:

The ministers of health and environment are either platitudinous or silent. Weeks before the smoke hazard has abated, the fire will be said to be out. The dangerous conditions for public health will be framed as a “nuisance”. A high-level committee will be formed and it will meet a few times before all the responsible government agencies lapse into their customary inertia. Renewed efforts to construct a waste-to-energy plant will be announced. The entirely insufficient recycling programmes in Jamaica will be mentioned as progress.

The head of the Jamaica Environment Trust offered three suggested solutions, including the identification of various sites to take organic waste – which accounts for sixty per-cent of refuse in Jamaica – and a central location for the collection of tyres. She also urged for the scaling up of a plastic recycling company, supported by several drop off points in Kingston, to eliminate the dumping of plastic waste.

More broadly, McCaully urged that a modern landfill should be constructed, wile Riverton is capped and closed, as it had become too expensive to remedy. This is an inescapable and troubling fact”, McCaully stated, “but the situation at Riverton threatens the health of roughly a million people. It simply cannot continue.”

Damningly, the JET chief also accused the state of infringing Jamaicans’ rights to freedom from environmental abuse and degradation of ecological heritage, while calling for the Board of the NSWMA to resign.

The aftermath: A South East Regional Health Authority representative said that an assessment will be carried out by the Ministry of Health to verify the number of patients with respiratory difficulties visiting the Bustamante Children’s Hospital and other medical facilities.

In the mean time, the Ministry of Education has authorized the closing of schools directly affected by the smoke.

There have been twelve fires at the Riverton Dump since 2005.

At the time of this report, the fire was contained to the south of the landfill, and the smoke over Kingston appears to have subsided.

Cover image: Jamaica Environment Trust. Additional reporting by the Jamaica Environment Trust.

Public health crisis looms as Kingston dump burns

Sophia Longsworth

Sophia is a Grenadian residing in the United States. She holds an MPH and an MSc. in Natural Resource and Environmental Management, and has research interests in the impact of the environment on public health.

PUBLISHED — March 17, 2015

Category: HealthSustainability