Herald: Under the microscope: The blaze that engulfed Sonsoddo

Under the microscope: The blaze that engulfed Sonsoddo

09 Jun 2019 05:26am IST
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09 Jun 2019 05:26am IST
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The Sonsoddo Garbage dump fire was a glaring stain on the civic sense of South Goa. Against the backdrop of recent activities commemorating the World Environment Day, which was celebrated earlier this week, MOSES PINTO takes a hard look at the giant man-made disaster

he Fire has been burning for over a week now and is being constantly fuelled by the polyethylene bags that have been dumped in the huge landfill at Sonsoddo.

Polyethylene or Polythene is a derivative of the fossil fuel namely: crude oil and is produced during the fractional distillation process of crude oil.

So essentially, what is burning at the landfill is the massive amount of fossil fuel that has been carelessly dumped there without any segregation or treatment.

It may be unclear as to what has been the cause of the fire and whether it was a man-made cause of starting the fire. But there is the possibility of the combination of the sun’s rays being magnified through the clear waste materials like plastic bottles and glass shards coupled with the friction caused by piling up the materials in the landfill that could have started the fire on its own.

Environmental aspects:

The burning blaze has caused very large concentrations of carcinogenic (Cancer Causing) effluents and pollutants to be released into the atmosphere in and around the area of the landfill.

The landfill itself has the effect of polluting the ground water as the toxic run-off of the degrading waste materials percolates into the ground and interacts with the water at the bottom of the water table.

Another recent consequence of the burning fire at the Sonsoddo is that the fire engines and fire tenders have had to spray massive amounts of water at the blazing fire and this has also created a lot of toxic run-off that has been observed to be flowing down the hill owing to the terrain and sloping location of the garbage dump.

The ecology around the area can be observed to be suffering a lot as the ash released into the air due to the burning fire has deposited a layer/coating of ash on the surface of the leaves of the trees around the surrounding area of the landfill. These deposits of ash on the surface of the leaves have thereby compromised the oxygen producing capabilities of the trees through photosynthesis consequently reducing the air quality in the area.

The eco-systems, which have been formed over the years around the surrounding areas of the landfill, are also under threat of isolation. For instance, it could be regularly observed that the scavenging birds like vultures used to frequent the landfill and regulate the wet waste around the landfill by scavenging and feeding on the same. However, now due to the immense heat, the ash and low levels of oxygen in the atmosphere around the landfill, the vultures have disappeared.

Similarly, the trees that were further uphill from the Sonsoddo landfill used to be common nesting sites for the endemic birds and squirrels that used to take refuge in the tree branches of the isolated hills around the Landfill. Now, these creatures would face displacement because of the unfavourable environmental conditions that have been created due to the burning of the landfill.

Effects of the pollutants on humans:

One of the most relevant aspects of the blaze at the Sonsoddo landfill would be the health effects that it would have on the residents in the surrounding areas, which are mostly down wind and downhill from the landfill site.

The consistent thick smoke which emanates from the burning of the waste materials consists of substances like tar, Carbon Monoxide, Carbon Dioxide, Sulphur gases like SO2, H2S, Nitrate gases like NO2 and low level cross chain hydrocarbons that tend to remain suspended in the lower layers of the atmosphere thereby leading to health deterioration of the people that inhale such gases on a regular basis. For instance; the firefighters who were fought the blaze as well as the residents in the area surrounding the landfill. Most of these gases readily oxidise in the atmosphere and interact with the moisture in the air and remain suspended until precipitation occurs in the form of ‘Acid Rain’. And now, with the expected onset of the monsoon, it can be anticipated that the surrounding areas around the landfill would experience ‘Acid Rain’.

Another important aspect about the nature of the pollutants is the size of the particulate released into the atmosphere from the burning of waste materials like non-biodegradable plastic is around PM2.5. Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is an air pollutant that is a concern for people's health when levels in air are high. PM2.5 are tiny particles in the air that reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy when levels are elevated.

Exposure to the gases and pollutants released in the atmosphere is that can lead to asthma like symptoms in healthy adults and more so in children, which can even become chronic if exposed for too long. Alveolar Constriction and effect of the exposure to the pollutants reduces the amount of oxygen absorbed in the blood during breathing and leads to emphysema.

The large amounts of carbon monoxide released into the atmosphere from the burning of the waste materials can even lead to a mild form of lung asphyxia which increases the levels of carbon monoxide in the blood and makes it difficult for the respiratory system to effectively take in oxygen from the atmosphere during normal breathing. This in turn can lead to an increased heart rate due to the heart pumping extra and being overworked to carry out normal breathing and respiration and cause the circulatory system to be overworked and even compromised leading to heart attacks, asthma attacks, bronchitis, etc.

The sum total effect of poor air quality has the tendency to compromise the health of the people being exposed to such toxic and polluting substances such as the Smoke from the Sonsoddo fire.

Could widespread fire have been 

prevented?

An MLH class helicopter of the Indian Air Force and the Navy, which has been specifically equipped with the Bambi Bucket, could have been requested to be put into service to contain the fire that broke out in the Sonsoddo area. After the helicopter would take stock of the situation, the Bambi buckets could have been filled with water from the nearby water reservoirs and dumped on the raging blaze in order to extinguish it permanently. This would have also prevented the fire from spreading.

The possibility of aerial firefighting by making use of helicopters, while being relatively new; would have also been very much possible. It has the advantage whereby these aircraft can access the fire from the air and can extinguish the blaze more effectively than what the traditional fire engines with limited ability can perform from the ground. Such a move would have required quick decision-making on the part of the authorities and a high level of coordination so as to safeguard our environment. But it is often the case that the environment is put to ransom at the hands of the bureaucracy.

If only the request had been made by the State government at the Air Command division of the Navy and Indian Air Force requesting for containing the fire at the Sonsoddo Landfill site, the Indian Air Force could have mobilised the Specialised Fire Fighting Helicopter and contained the fire in the short amount of time thereby limiting the widespread damage to the surrounding environment around the landfill site.
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