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EDITORIAL - Kingston's toxic cocktail

Published:Saturday | April 7, 2012 | 12:00 AM

WE NOW have confirmation from the nation's environmental authority: there are alarming levels of noxious gases emanating from the Riverton City dump. Local environmental advocates have been issuing dire warnings about the city's grievous air pollution for many years. But for too long, the issue has been largely ignored as we continue to pay lip service to the environment.

An air-quality test ordered after the dump started burning out of control in early February has revealed that not only did the fire have a negative effect on the ambient air quality in the Corporate Area and St Catherine, but also that toxic pollutants, including some that are cancer-causing, were found to be at levels way in excess of World Health Organization (WHO) standard.

The 18-page report had several recommendations attached, and we believe this report should alert the Government to the need for immediate action. And even in a tight budgetary situation, the resources ought to be found to implement the recommendations in the shortest possible time. The Hon Robert Pickersgill, who has the distinction of being Jamaica's first climate change minister, with added responsibility for water, land and the environment, has apologised for the distress experienced by residents who complained of respiratory ailments in the aftermath of the Riverton fires.

However, we are not convinced that the minister recognises the seriousness of the situation. The study identified worrying levels of benzene and medical experts have tied long-term benzene exposure to the onset of cancer and anaemia. If the Government is serious about improving air quality and safeguarding public health, then this report should have formed part of the administration's assessment at the recent Cabinet retreat.

Environmental action plan needed

We suggest that a national environmental action plan is urgently needed to communicate the seriousness of the situation and to get all stakeholders to make a big push to bring down pollution levels. The Government must now move to establish and enforce air-pollution standards.

The WHO estimates that nearly two million premature deaths each year can be blamed on air pollution. In addition, the organisation says bad air leads to various respiratory ailments, heart disease, lung infections and cancer.

Urban air pollution is set to become a huge environmental worry in the years ahead. A global environmental study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is predicting that by 2050 more than 3.6 million premature deaths will be caused by polluted air.

The fact is that poor garbage collection and disposal practices, together with the ineffective management of the Riverton dump, are all acting in synergy to reduce the appeal of Kingston as a welcoming place for visitors and investors.

Kingston's newly installed mayor, Angela Brown Burke, must see as one of her urgent priorities the challenge of ensuring municipal solid waste is handled in an environmentally sustainable manner. That is the only way to curb the threatening rat infestation which the mayor has promised to tackle. But pollution comes in many other forms, including noise, fuel exhaust and industrial waste, so there needs to be a comprehensive plan to control emissions.

At this time, the city of Kingston and its environs demand strategic options that would ensure that toxic, airborne pollution is brought down to a tolerable level.

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