A huge fire broke out at the Ghazipur landfill on 28 March, the flames of which were doused, but the smoldering was still seen at some locations at the site, according to the officials of East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC).
After the efforts of around 100 firefighters, the fire at the garbage mountain was finally put out nearly 50 hours after it broke out. No casualty was reported in the incident.
However, this massive mountain of toxic garbage, which was ablaze for over 48 hours, impacted not just those who lived in the immediate vicinity but also everyone who inhaled this smoke.
To understand more about this environmental calamity, The Quint spoke to Dr Arvind Kumar, the chairman of the Centre for Chest Surgery at Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi.
Sudden Spike in Toxins Can Be Lethal
The sudden spike in levels of toxins in the air is really harmful to all those who inhale it.
"The sudden rise in the levels of particulate matter and the toxic gas just in the area is very damaging," said Dr Kumar.
"And the people who are inhaling this toxic smoke 25,000 times per day, it's going to damage their lungs. More importantly, 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," he added.
"When there are very high levels of toxins in the air, studies have shown that after those few days of very high levels of pollution, there is an increase in the incidence of asthma, heart disease, brain disease, and casualties. All this will start showing within a week or two," explained Dr Kumar.
However, this does not mean an increase in the cases of hospitalisations in the area. Not all those who face external symptoms approach hospitals for treatment.
"They tell me, 'Doctor, we have learned to live with it. It's a part of our life.' Someone told me that they couldn't afford to go to a private clinic and that if they went to a government clinic, they would have to spend at least half a day to get just a prescription. And then they would not have the money to buy the medicine from that prescription. So their wages are also lost. And they are left with a prescription which is of no use to them," the doctor said.
"People continue to live and work around landfills often, despite knowing that it might kill them because most people choose livelihoods over life. Air pollution may kill them later but hunger would kill them first," said Dr Kumar.
Why Is the Smoke From a Landfill More Toxic?
Landfills catching fire is not an unknown phenomenon, say experts. When garbage gets fermented under very high pressure and temperature, it produces methane gas. This methane is also what leads to the bad stench in the area.
"So, when you have methane and temperatures touching 40 degrees during the daytime, then it's a recipe for fire, which will not get extinguished by any ordinary means because there is continuous production going on from inside. You extinguish it at one place and it will light up at another place," explained Dr Kumar.
And this smoke, unlike the regular smoke – for example, from stubble burning – is far more toxic.
The toxins from the fire will contain particulate matter, oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, dioxins furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds, among other things.
And these toxins spread into neighbouring habitations and public spaces, including Noida and Ghaziabad, and impact all those who inhale them.
Immediate, Intermediate, and Long-Term Impacts of Inhaling Toxins for 48 Hours
In the long run, life expectancy is affected, and often, these people face premature death, Dr Kumar said. "The saddest part is that air pollution is not a direct, immediate killer. It kills slowly," he added.
"There is a study done by the University of Chicago, where they have calculated the number of life-years lost by people in four different zones of the country due to air pollution and how many more years they would have lived if their air matched the WHO standards," he said. If Delhi's air matched these standards, people here would live 11.4 years longer. This would be 8-9 years for almost all of north India.
The immediate impact of inhaling such smoke would be excessive cough and wheezing. Then come the intermediate impacts after a week or two, like the higher incidence of heart attacks, brain attacks, and pneumonia, which take some time to develop.
"Such a sudden rise of toxins in the air will impact all those who inhale them, but the degree of impact will vary according to the quantum of smoke inhaled," he explained.