Cayman International School checks air quality during landfill fires

A view of last week's fire from the police helicopter. - Photo: RCIPS

If the huge plume of black, billowing smoke wasn’t enough to let Cayman International School know the landfill was on fire last week and that it might be time to close down for the day, the school has another way of telling if it’s time to evacuate.

CIS, which is located 0.2 miles north of the landfill, has a number of hand-held air-quality monitors that some of the school’s older students use to take readings as part of their science studies.

The school also uses the monitors to test air quality outside and inside the campus buildings. They check for particulate matter, carbon dioxide concentration, volatile organic compounds, temperature and humidity.

They’re also put into use when new furniture or fittings are installed or there is new paint, to check for ‘off-gassing’ from new materials, the school’s principal Jim Urquhart told the Compass earlier this week.

But on Thursday last week, after the scrap-metal section of the nearby landfill caught fire, it was time to break out the monitors again.

Cayman International School is about 0.2 miles from the landfill.

“With the hand-held monitors, we go around the school, in instances like that, to check the air quality,” Urquhart said.

“We lucked out with the wind direction,” he said, as the breeze carried the smoke and fumes away from the school, over the Esterley Tibbetts Highway, on Thursday, 25 March, so the air quality was recorded as ‘good’ by the monitors.

To double-check the monitors were working correctly and to get a baseline, a staff member took air-quality measurements nearer to the fire, which showed a much higher level of toxicity in the air.

Jim Urquhart, principal of Cayman International School

Urquhart said even though the smoke did not head in the direction of the school, CIS closed down as a precaution, in case the fire escalated – as happened in March last year – or if the wind direction changed. The school remained closed on Friday, again as a precaution.

On Friday the school carried out some deep cleaning of the campus, including power-washing buildings and checking air-conditioning filters.

The Department of Environmental Health currently has no equipment to check air quality during landfill fires. Carrying out such monitoring during fires was one of the recommendations made by the Amec Foster Wheeler consultants’ environmental review of the landfill in 2016.

DEH Director Richard Simms said last week that his department was currently looking into acquiring air-monitoring equipment.

At one point in recent years, the school had an air-quality station mounted on its rooftop, Urquhart said. It had been set up temporarily by a third party to monitor if there were toxins in the air, such as hydrogen sulphide and methane, commonly found in landfills.

Urquhart said an earlier study found that the wind blows in a direction that might take odours from the landfill to the school on just under 10% of days each year.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now