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Cancer-causing substances found in air from Riverton City fire - air quality report

Published:Tuesday | March 24, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Bullock DuCasse

High levels of hazardous substances, including the cancer-causing benzene, have been found in the air-quality tests that were done on the smoke from the Riverton City disposal site fire that broke out on March 11.

The Ministry of Health has now deemed it a "significant public health issue".

In a release yesterday, acting chief medical officer, Dr Marion Bullock DuCasse ,said the sampling for volatile organic compounds showed that benzene was at the highest level ever recorded by the ministry.

"The high level of benzene is directly attributed to the burning at the Riverton disposal site. We consider this a significant public health issue," she said.

According to the health ministry, prolonged or long-term exposure to benzene has been blamed for causing cancers such as leukemia. Long-term exposure is deemed to be over one year.

Benzene, which is also found at low levels in emissions such as cigarette smoke and muffler exhaust from vehicles, can cause symptoms such as drowsiness, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, headache, tremors and confusion immediately after exposure to high levels of the substance. Long-term exposure can result in a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anaemia, excessive bleeding and a reduction in the capacity of the immune system to fight infections and cancers.

The air-quality report was commissioned by the ministry using samples taken during the period March 13-14.

Bullock DuCasse added that the other particulate matter found in the air during the testing can cause mild to severe effects on the respiratory tract, including lung irritation and respiratory distress. In addition, the feeling of suffocation and hyperventilation that some persons have experienced could have been caused by the displacement of oxygen by the heavy gas emissions.

Bullock DuCasse said persons who are affected by smoke and other emissions from the disposal site should continue to take the recommended precautions, including avoiding the area, staying indoors as much as possible, keeping doors and windows closed, using a mask (preferably an N95 mask or a damp cloth) to reduce exposure to smoke and to protect from inhaling particulate matter that emanates from the burning site.

She said children, the elderly and persons with chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma should be closely supervised.

"If persons experience any sort of respiratory symptoms, they should take their prescribed medication or seek medical attention immediately," Bullock DuCasse cautioned.

The Ministry of Health will continue to monitor the situation in collaboration with the National Environment and Planning Agency.

Up to press time yesterday, firefighters were still trying to extinguish the fire, considered the worst in recent history and which has affected at least four parishes.

It was believed to have been started by arsonists.