At the height of the landfill fire, concern was concentrated on controlling the rapidly expanding blaze. But the smoke, which has been reduced from thick black clouds to an everpresent smog, remains an issue affecting people’s health.
Four patients have gone to the Cayman Islands Hospital’s Accident and Emergency Unit seeking treatment for issues related to inhaling the toxic smoke from the fire, a Hospital Services Authority spokesperson said.
Dr. Courtney Cummings, HSA deputy medical director, told the Cayman Compass in an email that the harmful effects of smoke inhalation depend on several factors, such as what substances are being burnt, whether the inhalation occurs in a closed or open area, and the extent of the inhalation.
“The effects include irritation of the nasopharynx and lung injury – this can give rise to a myriad of symptoms, including cough, shortness of breath, hoarseness, wheezing, headache, and disorientation, if severe,” Cummings said. He advised people with asthma, bronchitis or chronic lung disease to avoid inhaling the smoke “at all costs”.
“In addition to avoidance of the smoke, they should carry with them their usual medications such as inhalers,” he added.
But he also advised people to stay away from the affected area even if they do not suffer from chronic lung issues. “Whether persons have respiratory conditions or not, it is unsafe for them to breathe in the smoke. In an abundance of caution, those with chronic lung disease should remove themselves from coming into contact with smoke. This may mean staying with relatives or friends away from the affected area,” Cummings said.
These concerns are not new, however. A dump fire in December 2013 pointed to potential health issues arising from the toxins carried in the smoke. That incident highlighted the government’s lack of air-sampling equipment to test the extent of the harm the smoke could cause.
Richard Simms, director of the Department of Environmental Health, said at a press conference held at the landfill Monday afternoon, that seven years later, air-sampling equipment has still not been put in place.
“That is something that we are looking at and I’m sure as soon as this operation has died down, we will make sure that funds will be sourced towards equipment, so we can help prompt the monitoring within this area,” Simms said.
Todd Thalhamer, a landfill fire analyst and executive officer of Hammer Consulting Services, based in El Dorado, California, spoke on the value of such equipment during dump fires. He told the Compass that while air sampling helps determine the toxins in the air, he believes the more relevant question is for whom the air is being tested.
“When the smoke is black, it is at its most toxic, but to test the air with an air-sampling device, you have to ask whether you’re sampling the air for toxins that are going to impact the residents nearby or the firefighters, because a landfill fire carries many toxins that can’t be sampled from just one device,” he said.
Thalhamer, who spent 20 years as a firefighter before becoming a landfill fire expert, said he noticed a common problem across different Caribbean countries is that landfills aren’t capped or layered with a fireproof material to prevent these fires.
“Preventing these toxins [from being released] in the air really starts with a good management system with the landfill, and this is something that I have seen some Caribbean countries lack,” Thalhamer said.