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Editorial: Are there air-quality standards?

Published:Wednesday | March 25, 2015 | 12:00 AM

It is possible that we misapprehend and overstate its significance. Any other interpretation would be cause for even greater concern. That is, the Jamaican health ministry's statement about pollutants in the atmosphere at the height last week of the fire at the capital's dump.

The ministry offered no specific values, but said the detection of benzene was at the "highest level ever recorded by the ministry" and quoted the acting chief medical officer, Marion Bullock DuCasse, as attributing this directly to the fire at the disposal site, Riverton City.

"We consider this a significant public-health issue," said Dr Bullock DuCasse.

So, too, does this newspaper, and, we believe, most Jamaicans, particularly those who have been victims of respiratory tract ailments because of the fire. Except that an elevated level of benzene is cause for even more worry given its toxicity and potential dangers to health. It is an organic compound, which is a constituent of gasolene and other hydrocarbons, and widely used in a range of petrochemicals.

It can reach the atmosphere when burned, such as in emissions from motor vehicles, or what is happening at Riverton City when materials containing the compound is incinerated. It can also seep into the earth and, at high concentration, contaminate water sources. It is also associated with leukaemia, if ingested, or if it gets into the human system via the skin.

In other words, there is good cause to be alert for benzene and a host of other chemicals, of which we would expect Jamaica's environmental and health authorities to have a firm grasp. And that, or the hint that the Jamaican authorities may have been less than fully au fait with their implications or may have been operating with declared air-quality standards, is behind our need for reassurance.


Late research


Indeed, while we appreciate the need to be fully armed with the facts, we did find the following statement by the health ministry at the starting point of its air-quality research disconcerting. It said: "The Ministry of Health has started the review of literature as the basis for conducting research on the effects of air pollutants associated with fires at disposal sites and will engage local and international partners in this priority area."

Perhaps it is that the ministry intends to conduct longitudinal studies on the health of people who inhaled the pollutants from the fire, but we would hardly believe that a review of literature or the gathering of information on the effects of the burning of rubbish dumps is only now commanding the attention of Jamaica's health and environmental authorities. After all, this is not the first fire of significance at Riverton City or the island's other dumps.

Further, it is this newspaper's assumption that Jamaica has established air-quality standards not only for benzene, but other compounds and chemicals such as lead, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, nickel, cadmium and others that are part of modern life but pose dangers to human health. If, indeed, there are yet no standards in place, it is something which the authorities should, with urgency, get about setting.