Smoke coiling from Jamaica dump concerns residents

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — A growing chorus of Jamaicans said Monday they are exasperated with the government's failure to stop noxious, sooty smoke from billowing out of a sprawling waste dump that has been burning for a week and a half.

People in communities around the capital say they are concerned about the health effects of breathing in acrid smoke and microscopic pollutants put in the air by the latest blaze at the Riverton City dump, apparently started by an arsonist. A weeklong fire there in March sent plumes of gray smoke over densely populated sections of southern Jamaica.

Two years ago, a government study found alarming levels of volatile organic compounds were released by a raging fire at the same dump. The cancer-causing chemical benzene was detected at three times the World Health Organization's air standard.

The watchdog group Jamaica Environment Trust said it has received many complaints about the new fire and expressed alarm over "the inability of the authorities to extinguish the fire swiftly."

The group criticized government health officials for an "unconscionable silence." Jamaica's health ministry has yet to issue a public statement. A spokeswoman referred questions to the island's emergency management office.

Cheryl Nichols, a spokeswoman for the emergency management office, said that at this point "we really can't say definitively what has happened from a health point of view." Authorities will later tally hospital admissions to get a picture of the impact, she said.

Staff at health clinics said they had seen an uptick in people seeking help for respiratory distress.

Nichols said roughly five acres (two hectares) was burning Monday, a third the area that was on fire about a week ago.

Diana McCaulay, chief of Jamaica Environment Trust, said the government needs to vastly improve solid waste handling across the island.

"Riverton burns, people are sickened, (and) no one is ever held responsible," she said.

After the 2012 fire at the dump, Environment Minister Robert Pickersgill acknowledged the fire affected public health. At the time, he said the economically struggling country needed at least $20 million to build appropriate landfills.


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