Taking a stand on the fears of toxic-waste fires

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Historian Beatrice Bodart-Bailey… “I am well aware of how decisions made by a society and often a small group of people or even a single individual impact upon the life of generations to come.” Photo: Danielle Nohra

WITH high temperatures and fires said to become a new normal in Australia, concerned local Beatrice Bodart-Bailey is worried about whether it will cause an increase in the amount of potentially deadly, toxic-waste fires in the ACT. 

A national issue, the federal government published a report in 2016, stating that waste fires pose a serious risk to people, the environment and the economy.

Titled “Waste Fires in Australia: Cause for Concern?”, it reveals that, depending on the type of landfill fire and its contents, fires can often smoulder for weeks, producing odorous and noxious smoke that poses a risk to public health and safety. 

In Canberra alone, ACT firefighters – according to ACT Fire and Rescue data – have attended about 25 waste fires, including garbage dump or sanitary landfill fires, and construction or demolition landfill fires, in the past six years. 

While the data does not reveal an increase year-by-year, Beatrice, an inner-south resident, and an Honorary professor at the School of Culture, History and Language at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, says: “Canberra has had a bad record of fires in waste facilities producing not only extremely poisonous smoke, but also resisting efforts to extinguish the blaze.” 

Beatrice points to the waste fire at the Canberra Concrete Pialligo site that began on July 4, 2015, and took six days to extinguish, saying it’s an example of how, with high temperatures, large piles of waste ignite from the inside and then resist efforts of firefighters. 

Battling a waste fire also comes at the cost of taxpayers, with ACT Fire and Rescue revealing that any costs associated with their response to fires, including waste fires on commercially-owned land, is covered by funding provisioned by the ACT government for ACT Fire and Rescue’s operations.

But, according to a report produced for the federal Department of the Environment by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, at University of Technology Sydney, the cost of preventing waste fires is far less than that of fighting the fires and the clean-up costs afterwards.

Prevention, the report argues, is the best defence against risk of injury and death as well as environmental degradation and economic loss.

“Since on top of the damage the fires cause to the health of the population, as taxpayers they also have to fund extinguishing the fires, a process which can take several days incurring considerable cost, any government claiming to benefit the people must surely give this matter high priority,” Beatrice says. 

As a historian I am well aware of how decisions made by a society and often a small group of people or even a single individual impact upon the life of generations to come.” 

When it comes to waste fires, Sotiris Vardoulakis, a professor in global environmental health at ANU, says it’s plausible that higher average temperatures, and more frequent and prolonged drought conditions as a result of climate change, could contribute to more toxic fires in the ACT. 

Prof Sotiris Vardoulakis… “Smoke even from natural wood burning can trigger respiratory symptoms in sensitive individuals.”

“Smoke from toxic-waste fires contains dangerous chemical compounds that can aggravate respiratory symptoms, particularly in people with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis,” he says. 

“Some of these chemicals can be carcinogenic, which means that repeated exposure over long periods of time (ie several years) may increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer.”

When it comes to preventing toxic waste fires, the professor says it’s important to reduce waste and recycle as much of it as possible. 

He points to ways that the everyday Canberran can help reduce the risk of waste fires such as avoiding burning any type of waste and particularly plastic or other chemical waste that produces toxic smoke. 

“Waste should be sent to landfill or to a recycling facility,” he says. 

“Effective waste transport and storage, and waste-site management are crucial for the prevention of toxic waste fires. 

“Suitable fire-fighting equipment, fire breaks and training will also reduce the risk of fires spreading in these facilities.”

But, he says the key message is to reduce waste and avoid burning any type of domestic or chemical waste. 

“Treated wood should not be burnt and natural wood, for example fallen trees, should be as dry as possible if burnt to reduce the amount of smoke,” he says. 

“Smoke even from natural wood burning can trigger respiratory symptoms in sensitive individuals.” 

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Danielle Nohra
Danielle Nohra is the assistant editor of "CityNews".

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