Dumpsite fires are turning cities into gas chambers. They have to be prevented, not controlled

Focus on building infrastructure, reducing continuous dumping of fresh waste at landfill sites is critical

By Richa Singh
Published: Thursday 27 April 2023
The uncontrollable blaze at Brahmapuram dumpsite i Kochi lasted more than two weeks in March. Photo: Collector, Ernakulam / Facebook_

The fire outbreaks at Brahmapuram dumpsite in Kochi, Kerala have caught national attention. 

The uncontrollable blaze lasted more than two weeks in March and another fire was reported at the site on April 26, 2023. The dumpsite had an area of 75 acres of land carrying nearly 5.5 lakh tonnes of waste.

Every year, more and more cities are witnessing dumpsite fire outbreaks. Even then, more than 50-60 per cent of India’s waste still ends up in these unscientific constructed and operated landfills.

History of Brahmapuram dumping site

The landfill site at Brahmapuram began on June 30, 2007, when 27 trucks carrying unsegregated waste escorted by police jeeps arrived at a site in Chellipadam village at Brahmapuram. The location was in Vadavukode-Puthenkurissu Panchayat, 17 kilometres from Kochi city. 

Read more: 5 days in, Brahmapuram blaze continues to choke Kochi

Mismanaged waste disposal practices had led to an imminent crisis in the city. The High Court of Kerala ordered the disposal of the waste in the proposed site even before construction of the treatment plant. 

The people of Brahmapuram launched an indefinite protest against waste dumping, but the open dumping continued. The river around the site is the source of drinking water for six Panchayats, namely Vadavukode-Puthencruz, Kizhakkambalam, Thiruvankulam, Kunnathunadu, Thrikkakara and Edathala Panchayaths. 

It is also the main water source for areas like Infopark, Special Economic Zone, KPCL, Rajagiri School of Engineering, Kinfra Industrial Park, etc. The pump house for water distribution is situated hardly at a distance of 150 metres from the dumping site.

A 2007 report on the landfill site of Kochi Corporation, Independent Fact-Finding Committee Report on The Land Filling Site of The Corporation of Kochi at Brahamapuram, recommended all authorities concerned to stop dumping of municipal waste at Brahmapuram immediately. 

The committee was chaired by advocate PK Ibrahim of the high court and recommended necessary actions and measures to remove the mixed waste dumped in the open land at Brahmapuram to protect the environment from being irreversibly damaged. 

However, waste dumping continues even today, leading to persistent environmental and health issues faced by the residents. There are about 3,100 landfill sites across the country. 

While the government has initiated conversations about removing these landfill sites, focusing on building infrastructure by reducing the continuous dumping of fresh waste in these sites is critical. 

Constant sources of air pollution

The existing dumpsite is unscientifically designed and operated. As a result, it is not functioning sustainably. 

It is important to note that most of the landfills / dumpsites in India are either open dumping yards or semi-controlled landfills. They do not comply with the norms of sanitary landfilling mentioned in the Schedule I of the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016. 

These dumpsites are sources of high concentrations of landfill gases such as methane (CH4), carbon dioxides (CO2), hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and volatile organic compounds (VOC).

The landfill gases are released constantly as by-products of the degradation of waste or accidentally as plumes of uncontrolled landfill fires smouldering beneath the surface. 

It is important to note that the emitted VOCs generated from dumpsites comprise known Group 1 human carcinogens such as benzene, formaldehyde and Benzo(a)pyrene, according to International Agency for Research on Cancer. This causes health threats to people living near landfills or dumpsites. 

Read more: ‘Unscientific’ disposal, treatment of waste behind massive fire at Ghazipur landfill, say experts

Despite the harmful impacts of the dumpsites in recent years, not much research on health and environmental impacts on the residents living closer to dumping sites has been conducted in many of the cities situated in rural and peri-urban centres in India. 

Pollutants like dioxins and furans released due to low burning can cause a wide range of serious health effects, even at extremely low levels. These can include reproductive impairment, developmental injuries and increased risk of diabetes. 

Other chemicals, such as styrene and butadiene that are benzene derivatives, are released by the burning of tyres at dumpsites. These are suspected human carcinogens and the latter has been linked with leukaemia in humans.

Central government’s Council of Scientific & Industrial Research — National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology (CSIR-NIIST) conducted a study in 2019 on the emission of dioxins at the Brahmapuram site. A massive fire broke out on February 22-25, 2019. 

The two major findings of the study were:

  • The average dioxin levels observed in ambient air were found to be 3.2 picogramme toxicity equivalence per cubic metre. 1 gramme = 1,000,000,000,000 picogramme, while toxicity equivalence (TEQ) is a weighted quantity measure. 
  • The observed levels are 16 and 2.5 times higher than reference and field blank data. 
  • The average dioxin concentration observed in residual ash samples collected from different locations in the fire-covered area is 89.3 ng TEQ/kilogramme of ash. The total estimated dioxin emitted was 221 milligramme toxicity equivalence (TEQ).

Likewise, many studies across the world have reported the disastrous impacts of landfill fires on the population. 

A 2015 study on the impact of landfill fires in Canada estimated the current and projected emission of 10 major pollutants. These were dioxin/furans, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and 1-hexene) due to open burning of municipal solid waste. 

Dioxin / furan concentrations were 66 times higher during active burning (0.2 pg/m3) TEQ compared to after the fire was extinguished (0.003 pg/m3 TEQ). 

The most alarming finding was the fact that airborne concentrations of potentially harmful substances may be elevated during landfill fires even when criteria air pollutants (carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur oxides) remain largely unchanged.

Read more: Third dumpsite fire in a month points to systemic failure of waste management in Delhi

Besides dioxin furans, various other toxic gases can cause huge hazards to the environment. Emission factors of 59 non-methane VOCs, CH4, CO2, carbon monoxide and nitric oxide were measured from garbage fires in rural and urban sites in India to determine emissions from waste burning. 

Open waste burning may affect the atmosphere through the emission of other highly reactive compounds such as acetaldehyde (20–320 Gigagramme/year) (1 g =1,000,000,000 Gigagramme), propene (50–170 Gg/year), and ethene (50–190 Gg/year) and is a source of carcinogenic benzene (30–280 Gg/year).

Many of the toxic fumes produced can cause a genetic mutation that can lead to cancer in future generations. Children can be at much greater risk. Because of their body size, they inhale more air per pound of body mass than adults and can absorb a proportionately larger dose of toxins. 

Also, children’s bodies are more susceptible to damage from the lead, cadmium and other heavy metals found in smoke because their nervous systems are not fully developed. 

In view of the periodic fire breakout incidents reported at the Brahmapuram site, it is evident that the air and surrounding environment would have been contaminated with higher levels of dioxins and furans compounds.

An in-depth study comprising soil, sediment, water and air in the buffer zone of the dumpsite is essential to understand the fate of the environment. 

The way forward

It is absolutely critical to avoid dumpsite fire outbreaks across the country. The best approach to stop the dumpsite fire is to prevent rather than control it once ignited. Sustainable waste management practices based on circular economy principles are the need of the hour. 

The city solid waste management plan that focuses on the management strategies for fresh municipal solid waste generated in the city and remediation of old legacy waste dumpsites is essential. 

Read more: Kochi: Brahmapuram fire exposes outdated waste management practices in Kerala cities

A robust communications strategy to bring about behavioural change at the mass level to practice source segregation is critical for ensuring the scientific treatment of waste. In addition, methane emission monitoring is critical to assess the likelihood of fire outbreaks, especially during summer. 

Biodegradable waste from households and bulk generators such as markets and restaurants can be converted into compressed biogas plants to reduce the adverse health impacts of current waste dumping practices. 

Central schemes like SATAT on compressed biogas or other programmes by the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy can fund these projects. These would increase sustainability and reduce the adverse health impacts of current waste dumping practises. 

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