Effects of Garbage Burning

Garbage burning has been used many a time in trying to control mounds of garbage that accumulate over a period and where other forms of disposal seem not to be addressed. However, such burning has negative impacts to the environment and all living species, especially the human species. We know when fire burns a lot of smoke is emitted.

We know this smoke becomes part of the air we breathe.The question is Ԅo we want to breathe smoke? What is the effect of that smoke to our health?ԠWe might be able to endure smoke of burning wood, but what about burning plastic bags, an old cellphone or even an old tyre?

In October 2013, one of the largest dumpsite in Harare, the Pomona dump-site was burning for more than two weeks. This has become an annual phenomenon where such ԡccidentsԠdo take place at that dumpsite. The satellite image of the 20th of October 2013, available to the Geo-Information and Remote Sensing Institute (GRSI) at the Zimbabwe Technology Center (SIRDC), shows the smoke plume caused by that fire (Figure 1).

While the Pomona dumpsite is one big annual burning event, the residents of Harare are in a habit of burning their household garbageذlastic bags, old cellphones, etc.--in their backyards or even on the roadside as garbage collection appear to be sporadic. Can this be healthy?

What happens when plastic burns?

What gets released into the air? What effect does it have on the health if we breathe it?

According to the Polymer Science Institute (PSI) at the SIRDC, Plastic creates toxic pollution at every stage of its existence: manufacture, use, and disposal. Every bit of plastic that has ever been created still exists. Even if plastic gets incinerated (a form of controlled burning) its poisonous compounds still exist as particulate matter, and can escape as toxic matter into the atmosphere. Let us just imagine what happens at this dump site where the burning is uncontrolled!

Some major compounds in plastics include vinyl chloride (in PVC) benzene (in polystyrene), phthalates, and plasticizers, Bis Phenol-A (BPA) and formaldehyde. These are termed persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

The additives used during the manufacture of plastics that give the polymers their end use properties are varied. It is these additives that form toxic chemicals that are expelled into the environment when the plastics are burnt. These toxic chemicals have adverse effects on animals and human beings. For example the BPA is reported to affect the endocrine system. Endocrine system is the hub of human control and BPA has an oestrogenic side effect. This side effect leads to premature birth, intrauterine growth retardation, preeclampsia and still birth. BPA has also been shown to lead insulin resistance and diabetes. Some plastic monomers have been linked to cancer. The harmful effects of the chemicals have been found pronounced in new-born babies as the toxins pass through the placenta during pregnancy. Phthalates have been found to deposit in the fatty tissues of the body and cause disorders like male reproductive dysfunction, breast growth and testicular cancers.

E - Waste

Electronic-waste (e-waste) refers to end-of-life electronic products including computers, printers, photocopy machines, television sets, mobile phones, and toys, which are made of sophisticated blends of plastics, metals, among other materials.

Just like for plastics, it has been shown that incomplete combustion of e-waste and of processed materials is a source of various toxic chemicals. This means by uncontrolled recycling of e-waste, i.e. by heating and burning it, toxic metals (such as lead [Pb]) as well as persistent organic pollutants (POPs, such as dioxins/furans [PCDD/Fs], and flame retardants [PBDEs]) are released into the environment, which may affect human health either directly or indirectly.

For example, the recovery of copper wires through the burning of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and PBDE protected cables can release toxic chlorinated and brominated dioxins (PCDD/PBDD) and furans (PCDF/PBDF), and the open burning of computer casings and circuit boards stripped of metal parts can produce toxic fumes and ashes containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Due to its wide historical use as coolants and lubricants in transformers and capacitors, and as hydraulic and heat exchange fluids, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are also expected to be present in the e-waste stream.

Therefore, high concentrations of POPs and heavy metals/metalloid are detected in the air near sites where e-wastes (e.g., plastic chips, wire insulations, PVC materials and metal scraps) are incompletely combusted.

For more information contact the Geo-Info & Remote Sensing Institute on grsi@sirdc.ac.zw or +263(4)860321-9

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