The March 2015 Riverton Fire – A Disaster of Historic Proportions
Deika Morrison, Guest Columnist
Before you criticise the title as dramatic or alarming, I crave your indulgence to appreciate the position from which I speak. I hold two degrees in Environmental Systems and Science with a focus on public health - from the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN) School of Engineering and Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
I also have two degrees from the Wharton School of Business. For my senior project at UPENN, I used my environmental systems and business training to study the impact of the Cryptosporidium outbreak through the public water system in Milwaukee in 1993 - the largest waterborne disease outbreak in the history of the United States. My study outlined the costs of that public health disaster - short and long term - for which I received the Applied Science Prize for my year. I am no expert on environmental disasters, but I am trained enough to provide an opinion based on scientific and economic principles.
Largest fire ever
Last Wednesday, a fire that started at the Riverton dump became the "largest fire ever" so that by Friday morning, some schools and businesses closed and some students were rushed to hospital with effects from the smoke inhalation. This Monday, the Jamaica Fire Brigade said that on Saturday "the entire facility was on fire" - a first - and that by Monday the fire was 'contained'. MOH said that more than 800 people had visited hospitals. Up to the writing of this article, there has been no official report since Monday about the state of the fire - is it out, still burning, reduced, increased - or number of people who have visited the hospital. We were told it was "hoped" the fire would be out by this upcoming weekend.
How does that make this a disaster of historic proportions? It is not just because it is the largest fire in the history of Riverton. It is not just because more than 800 people have gone to hospitals. It is not just because schools have closed and GSAT was rescheduled for the first time. It is not because businesses closed, food couldn't be produced at some point in the polluted areas, or that ports closed, preventing import and export. It is because of what we have been, are and will continue to inhale and ingest from the smoke. In my research, I am yet to find a previous disaster that has posed a potential health risk like this to such a large percentage of the population. Let me explain.
Since last Wednesday, we the residents of Kingston, St Andrew, St Catherine and beyond - half the population of Jamaica - have breathed in this smoke 24/7. Bigger fire, more smoke. Longer fire, more smoke. After the fire is out, smouldering causes smoke for many days after. More smoke - in exposure time and concentration - means more risk now and in the long term. Every living thing is affected. Children and elderly are among the highest risk because of age. People with pre-existing respiratory challenges also among the highest risk, as are those with compromised immune systems.
The smoke is carrying pollutants that have to settle somewhere - inside our bodies is where they go when we inhale and ingest. The smoke that isn't blown away by the wind off our shores settles in our water and soil and on our plants, thereby polluting our food chain.
In regular burning garbage, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says there are a number of pollutants that may be produced, including dioxins, particle pollution, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, hexacholorobenzene and ash (sometimes laden with toxic metals). Aside from the short-term impacts listed above, these pollutants can lead to long-term damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system, aggravate respiratory conditions, cause heart attacks, alter the growth and development of cells with adverse effects upon reproduction, development, suppression of the immune system, disruption of hormonal systems, and cancer.
Negative impact on air quality
In the 2012 Riverton fire, NEPA concluded that that fire created a "negative impact on the ambient air quality" and among the many pollutants NEPA found were an elevated level of benzene (a volatile organic compound) levels - a proven carcinogen. Until the air quality tests come in - assuming the machines are working and are properly calibrated and placed in geographically appropriate positions - we will not know which pollutants have been and are present this time and at what level. Pollutants are definitely there though - that is not debatable.
CAPRI's preliminary estimate of the cost of this disaster at $272 million does not address the potential cost of long-term health impacts - the potential hidden cost to our health from this event into the future that is hardest to quantify. That risk keeps rising as long as the fire continues to burn, and more so in the absence of stringent measures taken to minimise exposure.
Why isn't there a minimum daily update on the status of this fire? Where have been the steps to ensure that the public's exposure was minimised, such as MOH health advisories every hour on all media, flyers and even town criers? Where was the advice to leave town to visit family and friends if we could - at least on the weekend when the fire engulfed the entire facility? Why was there no state-ordered cancellation of events? And of critical importance, why hasn't international help been requested to out this fire quickly and abate the smoke that continues to place us all at great risk. We simply just cannot afford to 'hope' it is out and all smoke abated by the weekend.