Burning waste, the associated hazards

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The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) has been overwhelmed by complaints from various quarters on air pollution mostly emanating from backyard trash burning as well as the burning of trash in skip bins in and around the central business district.
Burning of waste has become a common method to dispose of garbage due to various reasons chief among them being the local authorities’ failure to regularly collect refuse.

Besides polluting the air, the burning of waste raises a lot of health and environmental concerns. Pollutants from burning of trash are released primarily into the air — close to ground level — with no pollution controls unlike industrial air pollution, which can be regulated though the use of cleaner air pollution abatement technologies.

Avoid burning waste, instead compost all biodegradables

Today’s trash contains a lot of plastic and paper treated with chemicals, coatings and ink. The burning of such releases toxic substances and produces many pollutants including carbon monoxide, particle pollution, ash, dioxins (a group of highly toxic chlorinated organic chemicals, which are produced primarily as a result of human activity), thus presenting dangerous health conditions that can be caused by inhaling or ingesting small amounts of these pollutants. Vulnerable groups such as small children, especially those under the age of five, the elderly and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions are at great risk of being affected.

Why is open burning dangerous

Most of the pollutants released into the air through burning of waste, settles and moves along the food chain. Some of these chemicals can remain in the environment for a long time. Particulate matter, which refers to micro particles released by open burning, can penetrate into the lungs and aggravate respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis and have been associated with heart irregularities and attacks.

Open burning also contributes to ground level ozone pollution, also known as smog, which can worsen respiratory, heart and other existing health problems. It can also lead to eye, nose and throat irritation, damage to the central nervous system among other effects. Environmentally, smog inhibits plant growth and can cause widespread damage to crops and forests.

Vegetation plays a critical role in photosynthesis, a process, which absorbs carbon dioxide simultaneously producing the oxygen that we breathe. If we destroy it through excessive pollution, we put ourselves at great risk and promote the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a major greenhouse gas, which drives global warming.

Ash residue from burning can contain toxic metals such as mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic. Unaware of the potential danger some people scatter ash in their gardens or bury in their properties. Garden vegetables can absorb these chemicals and make them dangerous to consume. Children can ingest soil containing these metals while rain can wash the ash into ground and surface water sources, thus, contaminating drinking water.

Besides contributing to air pollution, burning plastic, rubber or painted material does not only create an unpleasant smell, but also produces a range of poisonous compounds. Smoke may cause problems for asthmatics, bronchitis patients and people with heart conditions. Burning waste produces dioxins and furans, which cause cancer. Fire can spread and result in extensive damage to the environment and property.

Sustainable waste management

There is need to adopt an integrated solid waste management approach. This involves incorporating the main components of the waste management hierarchy, namely; avoidance of waste generated, reuse, recycling, energy recovery, containment and as a last resort, disposal in properly engineered landfills.

What does the law say?

Any person, who causes air pollution, is liable to imprisonment for a period of not more than five years or to a fine not exceeding level 14 or both.

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