The full environmental and health impact of the two major fires at the George Town landfill recently is unknown because no air samples were taken during the fires, a consultant with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency believes.
Senior waste management engineer at CalRecycle, a recycling company in California, Todd Thalhamer, who also works with the EPA, said it was impossible to paint a true picture of the health risks posed by the dump fires unless proper testing was conducted to determine the toxicity levels in the air.
“When landfills catch fire, they do produce toxic smoke. The question is, without air sampling of the smoke, you can’t make the determination if it is a health concern,” said Mr. Thalhamer, who provides technical assessment and analysis for landfill fires and gas control systems for the EPA.
He noted that testing of the air could only be done during a fire or shortly afterward and that it is common practice in the U.S. in the event of landfill fires to conduct air sample testing to determine both the environmental and long-term health impacts of the smoke.
According to a local waste management official, no air quality testing was done during the fires in Cayman. Assistant Director of the Department of Environmental Health’s waste management team, Maysson Sallam, confirmed that the department had not conducted any air testing at the site during or immediately after the fire.
During the fires, the first of which occurred on Dec. 20 and the second from Feb. 12 to 15, no public health warning was issued to members of the public with breathing problems to avoid the area, a move Mr. Thalhamer says is recommended in the event of landfill fires, especially for the benefit of people with asthma and the elderly.
“If you can smell it, then you need to move, because you don’t know whether it is toxic or not,” he said.
Mr. Thalhamer said landfill fires and their health concerns are “not a unique problem to the Cayman Islands,” explaining that he visited Panama to offer assistance during a landfill fire that broke out on March. 19, 2013, at Panama City’s main landfill, Cerro Patacón. The fire required an emergency shipment of 100,000 gallons of foam from Texas to douse the flames.
Cayman’s December fire mostly involved a huge pile of discarded tires at the dump, while the fire last week was in a large mound of residential waste.
Rubbish at the landfill is divided into 21 categories, which include everything from metal waste, cardboard and pallets to foam, deceased animals and derelict vehicles. A report compiled by waste management consultants Gershman, Brickner & Bratton for the Cayman Islands government in 2008 stated that residential waste makes up 15 percent of what is in the dump, while commercial waste accounts for the highest amount of trash in the landfill, at 38 percent. Metal makes up 16 percent of the contents, yard waste 14 percent, and construction waste 10 percent.
Ms. Sallam said that while the Department of Environmental Health separates hazardous materials from commercial waste and incinerates biomedical waste, “We don’t go through all the household garbage.” This means that all items collected during residential garbage pickups are not separated.
“Whether it’s tires, or plastic or general waste, it’s all toxic smoke and it is definitely a health concern,” said Mr. Thalhamer.
According to a report conducted by the U.S. Fire Administration, “Landfill fires threaten the environment through toxic pollutants emitted into the air, water, and soil. These fires also pose a risk to firefighters and civilians who are exposed to the hazardous chemical compounds they emit.”
The Pan American Health Organization conducted a general study on the Waste Management practices in the Cayman Islands in 2003. Its report estimated that the George Town landfill was to reach full capacity by mid-2005. Today the landfill, which is locally nicknamed Mount Trashmore, has ballooned into an 80-foot-high mound of garbage.