Jamaica must clamp down on trash fires because the smoke, soot and microscopic pollutants they release into the air are serious health hazards, an environmental group said Wednesday.
The Jamaica Environment Trust called on the government to establish air quality testing in areas likely to be affected by dump fires and to publish the results routinely. It is also urging authorities to try to stop the open burning of trash, which is widespread.
A government report released this week said alarming levels of volatile organic compounds were dispersed in the air from a fire that burned for more than a week in February at an open-air dump in Kingston. It created a plume of smoke that could be seen for miles and affected schools, shantytowns and housing complexes.
The cancer-causing chemical benzene was detected at three times the World Health Organization's air standards during the blaze at the Riverton City dump.
The long-term impact of exposure to chemicals released by the fire is unknown. The health ministry has reported an increase in respiratory illness cases, particularly near the dump.
There is little control over what is unloaded at the dump so fluorescent bulbs containing mercury, car batteries, tires and all manner of industrial waste burned.
The watchdog group said it is hopeful the release of the air quality results during the Riverton City fire "marks a commitment to greater openness about the sorry state of waste management in Jamaica."
The group asserted that the findings by the National Environment and Planning Agency illustrated the regulatory and operational failures of three government ministries.
The agency's report listed several residential neighborhoods and all facilities up to a kilometer (half-mile) along a major road in the north-northwest direction of the dump as having a "very high risk" impact from the smoke during the fire.
"The list of affected communities who were faced with 'very high risk' and 'high risk' health effects because of the Riverton fire should be of concern to all Jamaicans," the activist group said in a statement.
Environment Minister Robert Pickersgill acknowledged that the fire affected public health.
"On behalf of the government I wish to apologize to those individuals and businesses affected," he said.
Pickersgill said the cash-strapped country needs at least $20 million to build appropriate landfills.