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Clearing the air - how to protect your health

Published:Saturday | February 25, 2012 | 12:00 AM
A man sifts through a burning section of the Riverton landfill in St Andrew, recently. - Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer

Sharonmae Shirley, Contributor

SINCE the recent fires at the Riverton City landfill, many statements have been made alluding to the harmful nature of the air emissions and the associated health concerns.

In this article, we share respirable particulate data for a school located in the Seaview Gardens community and outline some simple suggestions that can help to protect our health.

What you should know about smog - the hazy air above cities

If you travel into Kingston early in the morning, you would be very familiar with the bluish-grey haze that is seen as you approach Ferry. Smog dissipates as the day warms up, so that by midday, the air is free of the haze, BUT, not free of contaminants.

Air pollution is a mixture of multiple impurities whose effects may combine to produce a complex soup of contaminants. The commonly known air pollutants are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulates.

Ozone, known for its beneficial effects in blocking harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun far above the earth (stratosphere), can be a serious contaminant at ground level. Formed as a by-product of the reaction of sunlight with primary pollutants from vehicular emissions, industrial stacks and domestic fires, ground-level ozone causes eye irritation, decreased lung function and poor visibility. Its concentration peaks in the early afternoon when the sunshine is most intense.

The concentration of air pollutants depends on several factors: type and source of contaminant, air movement, wind speed, rainfall and landform. Impurities such as fine dust particles can travel far distances and remain in the air for long periods. They can thus cause effects far from their point of generation.

This was apparent during the recent landfill fires at Riverton. Smog was evident as far away as Portmore, Plantation Heights, Spanish Town, Red Hills, and Papine. In Kingston, the daily smog is exacerbated by fires at the landfill. The Gleaner reported fires at the Riverton landfill in April 2005, January 2007, July 2008 and February 2010. Some of these fires took several days to be extinguished.

Air Quality and your Health

It is widely accepted that the health consequences of air pollution, both indoors and in ambient (outdoor) air, are far-reaching, ranging from simple discomfort to premature death. The effect on health is determined by the type of pollutant, some of which were mentioned above (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, VOCs and particulates).

Many of these pollutants contribute to upper respiratory tract ailments and decreased lung function. Respirable particulates are of special concern, as these dust particles are very small (0.1 to 10 microns) and can be respired directly into the lungs.

Health effects also vary based on age, state of health, sensitivities, where you live, work or attend school, duration of exposure and weather. So if you spend most of your time in an area that has poor air quality, because of the length of exposure, you will be more at risk of contracting some chronic illnesses than someone who visit for short periods.

Outdoor air pollutants, when trapped inside, can make the indoor air even more contaminated than that outdoors because of the contaminants concentrating in the small internal air volume. The very young are at greater risk because they are more active outdoors, and their lungs are still developing. The elderly are more susceptible to infections because their immune systems are easily compromised.

In view of concerns regarding the effect of air quality on children, the Kiwanis Club of New Kingston (KCNK) undertook a major project in 2010-2011 to investigate the conditions in the Kingston Metropolitan Area. The KCNK sought the assistance of Environmental Solutions Ltd (ESL) who agreed to partner with the service club to undertake the necessary studies in the corporate area and to develop an awareness- building programme for schools in general.

Eight schools were selected for general sensitisation. A video documentary titled 'Choking on Air' was produced and presented by the KCNK to the minister of education for distribution to schools. In this video, many of the students interviewed share the daily effects of poor air quality on their health. Air-quality measurements were undertaken at three of the eight schools in the programme.

Seaview Gardens Primary, one of the schools tested, is located in proximity to the Riverton City landfill. Following the recent fire at the landfill, ESL took the opportunity to deploy respirable particulate (PM10) air monitors over a 24-hour period, February 9-10, 2012, so as to compare the findings with the previous data. The monitors used measured the approximate volume of air that an individual would breathe in over a 24-hour period.

A study of this nature is best done daily over a 12-month period, so this study is limited by the number of samples collected. However, the three sets of data collected over the wet and dry seasons provide an indication of the likely particulate loads at the site.

Industrialisation and heavy traffic, particularly in urban areas, have made ambient air quality a major global concern. This will be compounded by the effects of climate change. Air-quality monitoring is limited, even in some developed countries because of the prohibitive costs.

We can, however, influence our environment and preserve our health by making simple lifestyle changes. Listed below are some ways to reduce the health effects of poor ambient air quality.

1. Keep children indoors during episodes of higher-than-usual smog levels. Children have a higher ventilation rate (number of breaths per minute) and will inhale more pollutants.

2. Avoid strenuous exercise during high smog episodes. Exercise increases the depth and rate of ventilation, thus causing more pollutants to be inhaled.

3. Avoid or reduce exercise near areas of heavy traffic, especially during rush hour.

4. Breathe through your nostrils and not your mouth as the nostrils have natural filters to remove larger particles. Children tend to breathe through their mouths; parents should alert them during these episodes to breathe through their nostrils.

5. Boost your ability to fight infections by taking vitamin supplements or eating fruits.

6. See your doctor if you have cardiac/heart problems or suffer from emphysema or other lung disease.

7. If you or your family members have a history of asthma or respiratory illness, and you live close to areas with poor air quality, invest in a respirator (an apparatus worn over the mouth and nose to prevent inhalation of dust or noxious fumes - not the simple dust masks).

8. If at all possible, temporarily relocate to a safer environment when there is an extreme event.

9. Indoor air can become quite polluted if contaminated with air from outdoors; keep windows closed during pollution events to prevent harmful build-up indoors, BUT remember to open your windows to release the contaminants from inside as soon as it's safe.

10. Invest in a charcoal filter if you use an air conditioner.

11. Help to improve the air quality by:

  • a. Committing to NO open burning as stipulated by NEPA.
  • b. Carpooling, wherever possible, to reduce automobile exhaust.
  • c. Recycle your plastics so that fewer enter the landfill, and segregate flammables such as aerosol cans, batteries, etc.
  • d. Keeping automobiles well tuned for efficient fuel use. This will save petrol consumption as well as help the air quality.
  • e. Reduce energy usage in the home and office - this will result in lower electricity demand and, ultimately, fewer air emissions.

Sharonmae Shirley, Environmental Chemist and Director of Environmental Services, Environmental Solutions Ltd.