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How Burning Trash (Garbage) Can Damage Your Health

by: - June 1, 2018
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by: Miguel Shillingford,
Forestry Officer
Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division
Environmental Education Unit

Most people who burn plastic domestic waste do not realize how harmful this practice is to their own health and to their environment. In fact, current research shows that burning of trash/waste is far more harmful to our health than was previously thought.

People burn plastics for various reasons—either because it is easier than hauling it all the way to the sanitary landfill or to avoid paying for regular waste collection services. For others there may be no waste collection services in their community or vicinity and, in their opinion, burning seems to be the only way to get rid of their waste. The burning of plastic and other hazardous trash is often practiced in areas with low economical levels or within poor communities.

When trash is burned, harmful air emissions are released directly into the the atmosphere without being treated or filtered. Studies indicate that burning of non-biodegradable material increase the risk of heart disease, aggravate respiratory disorders such as asthma and emphysema, may cause rashes, nausea, headaches, can even cause damage within the nervous system, the kidneys or liver.

The burning of polystyrene polymers—such as Styrofoam/foam cups, meat trays, egg containers, yogurt and deli containers—releases styrene in a very harmful form. Styrene gas can readily be absorbed through the skin and lungs. At high levels styrene vapor can damage the eyes and mucous membranes. Long term exposure to styrene can affect the central nervous system, causing headaches, fatigue, weakness, and depression.

Not only these people who are burning the trash are exposed to these pollutants, but also their children, families and neighbors.

The most dangerous emissions can be caused by burning plastics. When such plastics are burned, harmful quantities of dioxins, a group of highly toxic chemicals, are emitted. Dioxins are the most toxic to the human organisms. Dioxins are carcinogenic and a hormone disruptor. Being persistent, they accumulate in our body-fat and thus mothers give it directly to their babies via the placenta. Dioxins also settle on crops and in our waterways where they eventually wind up in our food, accumulate in our bodies and are passed on to our children.

Pollutants released from burning plastic waste are transported through the air, either at short or long distances, and are then deposited onto land or into bodies of water. A few of these pollutants persist for long periods of time in the environment and have a tendency to bioaccumulate—which means they build up in predators at the top of the food web.

Bioaccumulation of pollutants usually occurs indirectly through contaminated water and food rather than breathing the contaminated air directly. In wildlife, the range of effects associated with these pollutants includes cancer, deformed offspring, reproductive failure, immune diseases and subtle neurobehavioral effects.

Humans can be exposed indirectly just like wildlife, especially through consumption of contaminated fish, meat and dairy products.

Non-biodegradable pollution, pollution that accumulates in the environment and may appear in the food chain, is too often the results of anthropogenic causes (man-made).

Post Hurricane Maria saw an exponential increase in these dioxin/toxic fires within the last six (6) months in Dominica (between September 2017 and April 2018). A silent and subtle killer may have increased in potency, in our food and water supply, as a result.

It may take us all, in unison, to assist “mother nature” in attempting to curb the regrettable potential risk to the health of both human and wildlife on the “Nature Isles of the Caribbean”.

Let us do our best to preserve our health by good environmental practices, and by educating and sensitizing our family, friends, and neighbors.