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Kochi Dumpyard Fire: How Do Toxic Fumes Impact the Health of a City?

Experts explain what prolonged exposure to toxic fumes can do to your body and how you can mitigate the risks.

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On 2 March, Aparna, a 25-year-old visual designer, woke up to the news of a fire breaking out at the Brahmapuram dump yard near her home in Kerala's Kochi.

It took three days and some advice from the New York Fire Department for the Disaster Management Authority to be able to finally douse the flames on 5 March.

Almost two weeks later, the toxic fumes, however, continue to linger in the air and residents have been facing a hard time getting on with their lives. Some have even decided to move out of their homes temporarily.
"Every member of my family has been facing some breathing issue or the other. I have asthma. I have been heavily dependant on my inhaler. That's how hard it is for me to breathe at the moment."
Aparna (25), resident of Tripunithura near Kochi to FIT

This isn't the first time a dump yard or a landfill has caught fire and it likely won't be the last.

In such a situation, how does it impact the health of those exposed? Can these toxic fumes cause cancer? How can you protect yourself? FIT explains.

Kochi Dumpyard Fire: How Do Toxic Fumes Impact the Health of a City?

  1. 1. How Are the Residents Doing?

    Speaking to FIT, Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, Medical Specialist and former President of the Indian Medical Association’s Cochin Chapter, says, "We have been seeing an increase in, mainly, outpatient visits to individual doctor clinics as well as medical outpatient clinics."

    He says people are most commonly coming in with complaints of:

    • Breathing difficulty

    • Cough

    • Nausea

    • Burning of eyes and throat

    • Headache

    • Fatigue

    However, most people don't make it to the hospital if they're able to manage the symptoms at home. This means, "We are seeing an 'iceberg phenomenon' (where a large portion of the cases go unreported)," Dr Jayadevan tells FIT.

    There have been some cases of serious illness and hospitalisations as well.

    "These generally belong to the category of people who have some underlying lung disease," he says.

    Underlying lung diseases can range from a mild recurring bronchitis to COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease) and asthma.

    However, Dr Jayadevan also adds that considering the vastness and population of the affected area, "the number of people who are getting admitted to the hospital is a relatively small number."

    Expand
  2. 2. How Exposure to Toxic Fumes Impacts Your Health?

    "Primarily we can expect short term, intermediate and long term problems," says Dr Avinash Anil Nair, Assistant Professor, Respiratory Medicine, Christian Medical College Vellore.

    "Short term issues typically include upper and lower respiratory tracts infection, and worsening of lung conditions like asthma and COPD. Intermediate will be worsening of lung function."
    Dr Avinash Anil Nair

    "There is a significant increase in PM (particulate matter) 2.5 and PM 10 in the air whenever there is a fire like this," Dr Lancelot Pinto, Consultant Intensity, P Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai, tells FIT.

    Speaking to FIT when a landfill in Delhi's Ghazipur district had caught fire, Dr Arvind Kumar, the chairman of the Centre for Chest Surgery at Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi, had said, "...the people who are inhaling this toxic smoke 25,000 times per day, it's going to damage their lungs."

    People may also develop cardiovascular symptoms, says Dr Pinto.

    There are also some concerns of long-term health issues that are floating in people's minds.

    "It's going to get absorbed from there and damage all the organs. And the worst effect will be on pregnant women, whose foetuses will get affected."
    Dr Aravind Kumar

    "Long term concerns are to do with volatile organic compounds and other heavy metals in the soil as well as the groundwater," says Dr Pinto. But, he adds, "this is still theoretical. We wouldn't know just yet."

    "Long-term effects needs to be followed up as we cannot predict them as of now", says Dr Nair.

    The impact would also depend on the duration and intensity of the exposure.
    Expand
  3. 3. What About the Risk Of Cancer?

    "For someone who isn't medically trained, it's really easy to go into a state of panic when they hear these discussions, headlines, and words like 'cancer' being thrown around."
    Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, Medical specialist, ex-President, Indian Medical Association

    To clarify, Dr Jayadevan says, yes, cancer-causing chemicals can be found in the open burning of waste. But, he adds, "it's not a binary. It's not either cancer yes, or cancer no."

    "The risk of these carcinogens actually causing cancer has mainly been seen in those who are exposed to large amounts of it for a prolonged period of time like people who actually spray the fertilizers, and do it for a living," he adds.

    Similarly, Dr Pinto talks about how those involved in rescue operations, and dousing the fire, who have been in close range of the fire for days on end, are at a higher risk.

    "If they are not adequately protected, those individuals could end up being exposed to a very high concentration of pollutants through breathing and also through their skin."
    Dr Lancelot Pinto, Consultant Respirologist, P.D. Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai

    However, for a person that's not too close to the site, that's breathing in the fumes for a span of a few days, the risk of developing cancer from it is considerably lower.

    Dr Jayadevan adds, "When we say that, we should not be misconstrued as trying to trivialise the situation. If fires like this one continue to be an ongoing problem in the future, the risk will increase on a sliding scale."

    Expand
  4. 4. Treatment & Protective Measures

    There is no treatment for exposure to toxic fumes. The most that the doctors can do is evaluate patients and give customised treatment based largely on their underlying conditions and symptoms.

    "The approach would be similar to the impact of increased air pollution anywhere," says Dr Pinto.

    "If you have breathlessness, get yourself examined to make sure your oxygen levels are fine, and it's not a severe attack you are experiencing."
    Dr Lancelot Pinto

    Speaking of ways to protect yourself from the fumes, the experts we spoke to suggested these measures:

    • Shut the windows and doors

    • Use an air purifier, if possible

    • Minimise exposure to harsh or strong smells and visible fumes

    • Don't exercise outdoors

    • Minimise going out as much as possible

    • Wear N95 masks

    It must be noted that N95 masks only filter physical particles of liquid or solid, and will not filter a chemical in gaseous form.

    So is it useless? Not quiet. It's still better than nothing. It can still filter out dust and particulate matter like ash which is basically carbon particles but can also contain suspended chemicals in them.
    • Leave town for a few days if possible.

    "...But this can't be a blanket recommendation because it's not feasible," adds Dr Jayadevan.

    • Don't skip medication

    "If you have underlying asthma or other chronic disorders, you must make sure to be absolutely regular with your medication right now. This is not the time to experiment or try to cut down on medication."
    Dr Lancelot Pinto
    Expand
  5. 5. Give Whatsapp ‘Nuskas’ a Rest

    With big news and large disasters, comes a stream of 'well-meaning' 'WhatsApp advice' and home remedies.

    One such hack that's floating around is that sprinkling charcoal on the floor of your rooms can help 'absorb' the toxins and purify the air.

    "I have not heard of a more stupid statement made in the guise of science," says Dr Jayadevan.

    Explaining this, he says that for one, activated charcoal – which can be used for filtration – is different from your regular run-of-the-mill charcoal.

    "Activated charcoal is a specialised substance that is made for the purpose of filtering in professional grade water filters and gas masks," he says.

    "How these filters work is that they make air or water pass through them forcefully to adsorb gases. So just keeping a bowl of commercially bought activated charcoal wont do any good."
    Dr Rajeev Jayadevan

    Burning incense sticks or camphor to 'purify' the air is also not a good idea.

    "Please don't burn anything inside the house, especially when your windows are closed," says Dr Pinto.

    "It produces smoke and all sorts of chemicals. It will not make the situation better. It will only make it worse. Do not do it," reiterates Dr Jayadevan.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

How Are the Residents Doing?

Speaking to FIT, Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, Medical Specialist and former President of the Indian Medical Association’s Cochin Chapter, says, "We have been seeing an increase in, mainly, outpatient visits to individual doctor clinics as well as medical outpatient clinics."

He says people are most commonly coming in with complaints of:

  • Breathing difficulty

  • Cough

  • Nausea

  • Burning of eyes and throat

  • Headache

  • Fatigue

However, most people don't make it to the hospital if they're able to manage the symptoms at home. This means, "We are seeing an 'iceberg phenomenon' (where a large portion of the cases go unreported)," Dr Jayadevan tells FIT.

There have been some cases of serious illness and hospitalisations as well.

"These generally belong to the category of people who have some underlying lung disease," he says.

Underlying lung diseases can range from a mild recurring bronchitis to COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease) and asthma.

However, Dr Jayadevan also adds that considering the vastness and population of the affected area, "the number of people who are getting admitted to the hospital is a relatively small number."

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

How Exposure to Toxic Fumes Impacts Your Health?

"Primarily we can expect short term, intermediate and long term problems," says Dr Avinash Anil Nair, Assistant Professor, Respiratory Medicine, Christian Medical College Vellore.

"Short term issues typically include upper and lower respiratory tracts infection, and worsening of lung conditions like asthma and COPD. Intermediate will be worsening of lung function."
Dr Avinash Anil Nair

"There is a significant increase in PM (particulate matter) 2.5 and PM 10 in the air whenever there is a fire like this," Dr Lancelot Pinto, Consultant Intensity, P Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai, tells FIT.

Speaking to FIT when a landfill in Delhi's Ghazipur district had caught fire, Dr Arvind Kumar, the chairman of the Centre for Chest Surgery at Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi, had said, "...the people who are inhaling this toxic smoke 25,000 times per day, it's going to damage their lungs."

People may also develop cardiovascular symptoms, says Dr Pinto.

There are also some concerns of long-term health issues that are floating in people's minds.

"It's going to get absorbed from there and damage all the organs. And the worst effect will be on pregnant women, whose foetuses will get affected."
Dr Aravind Kumar

"Long term concerns are to do with volatile organic compounds and other heavy metals in the soil as well as the groundwater," says Dr Pinto. But, he adds, "this is still theoretical. We wouldn't know just yet."

"Long-term effects needs to be followed up as we cannot predict them as of now", says Dr Nair.

The impact would also depend on the duration and intensity of the exposure.
0

What About the Risk Of Cancer?

"For someone who isn't medically trained, it's really easy to go into a state of panic when they hear these discussions, headlines, and words like 'cancer' being thrown around."
Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, Medical specialist, ex-President, Indian Medical Association

To clarify, Dr Jayadevan says, yes, cancer-causing chemicals can be found in the open burning of waste. But, he adds, "it's not a binary. It's not either cancer yes, or cancer no."

"The risk of these carcinogens actually causing cancer has mainly been seen in those who are exposed to large amounts of it for a prolonged period of time like people who actually spray the fertilizers, and do it for a living," he adds.

Similarly, Dr Pinto talks about how those involved in rescue operations, and dousing the fire, who have been in close range of the fire for days on end, are at a higher risk.

"If they are not adequately protected, those individuals could end up being exposed to a very high concentration of pollutants through breathing and also through their skin."
Dr Lancelot Pinto, Consultant Respirologist, P.D. Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai

However, for a person that's not too close to the site, that's breathing in the fumes for a span of a few days, the risk of developing cancer from it is considerably lower.

Dr Jayadevan adds, "When we say that, we should not be misconstrued as trying to trivialise the situation. If fires like this one continue to be an ongoing problem in the future, the risk will increase on a sliding scale."

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Treatment & Protective Measures

There is no treatment for exposure to toxic fumes. The most that the doctors can do is evaluate patients and give customised treatment based largely on their underlying conditions and symptoms.

"The approach would be similar to the impact of increased air pollution anywhere," says Dr Pinto.

"If you have breathlessness, get yourself examined to make sure your oxygen levels are fine, and it's not a severe attack you are experiencing."
Dr Lancelot Pinto

Speaking of ways to protect yourself from the fumes, the experts we spoke to suggested these measures:

  • Shut the windows and doors

  • Use an air purifier, if possible

  • Minimise exposure to harsh or strong smells and visible fumes

  • Don't exercise outdoors

  • Minimise going out as much as possible

  • Wear N95 masks

It must be noted that N95 masks only filter physical particles of liquid or solid, and will not filter a chemical in gaseous form.

So is it useless? Not quiet. It's still better than nothing. It can still filter out dust and particulate matter like ash which is basically carbon particles but can also contain suspended chemicals in them.
  • Leave town for a few days if possible.

"...But this can't be a blanket recommendation because it's not feasible," adds Dr Jayadevan.

  • Don't skip medication

"If you have underlying asthma or other chronic disorders, you must make sure to be absolutely regular with your medication right now. This is not the time to experiment or try to cut down on medication."
Dr Lancelot Pinto
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Give Whatsapp ‘Nuskas’ a Rest

With big news and large disasters, comes a stream of 'well-meaning' 'WhatsApp advice' and home remedies.

One such hack that's floating around is that sprinkling charcoal on the floor of your rooms can help 'absorb' the toxins and purify the air.

"I have not heard of a more stupid statement made in the guise of science," says Dr Jayadevan.

Explaining this, he says that for one, activated charcoal – which can be used for filtration – is different from your regular run-of-the-mill charcoal.

"Activated charcoal is a specialised substance that is made for the purpose of filtering in professional grade water filters and gas masks," he says.

"How these filters work is that they make air or water pass through them forcefully to adsorb gases. So just keeping a bowl of commercially bought activated charcoal wont do any good."
Dr Rajeev Jayadevan

Burning incense sticks or camphor to 'purify' the air is also not a good idea.

"Please don't burn anything inside the house, especially when your windows are closed," says Dr Pinto.

"It produces smoke and all sorts of chemicals. It will not make the situation better. It will only make it worse. Do not do it," reiterates Dr Jayadevan.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from fit

Topics:  Kochi   South India   Fire Breakout 

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