THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: While the City Corporation has no answers to the piling up of plastics in city homes, burning plastic waste is now an everyday happening, with households after households having no qualms about burning them even right on the public roads. Easy solution, yes. But are we creating another one? The Respiratory Medicine Department of the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital has registered a forty-per cent increase in the number of patients coming in with respiratory problems. ‘’A majority of patients come with dry cough and wheeze or just cough that lasts for as long as 3-4 weeks without any reason. Sometimes, the presentations are acute,’’ said Dr Fathahudeen, associate professor at the Pulmonary Medicine Department of the Medical College.
Most of these patients show no infection or do not have any past history of asthma. There is no variation in the intensity of the cough during the day and the night. Most of the patients who come to the Medical College with dry cough are middle-aged. Thankfully, children have been spared, at least for now.
‘’At times, it is hard to differentiate it from common cold and we do not have any direct evidence. But infections are not detected and going by the circumstantial evidence, we tend to conclude that this sudden increase in the number of patients must be due to the increase in plastic fumes,’’ said Dr Fathahudeen, who also warned that the situation could go out of hand if not checked immediately.
The asthma patients are affected the most by the fumes, while those who do not have asthma become vulnerable to developing asthma, said the doctors. The more the density of houses in a residential area, the more is the density of fumes from plastic. So much so that in most areas of the city, you get to see a fog-like haze in the early mornings as well as evenings as you see in industrial areas.
‘’What is sent into the air is not just the toxic fumes, but a large amount of solid wastes as ash and residues that contribute to the fog. Burning any type of plastic releases toxic and potentially cancer-causing chemicals like dioxins into the air. They can interfere with the endocrine gland system which produces hormones and have been known to affect both the immune system and reproduction,’’ said Shibu, programme director at city-based Green NGO Thanal.
While plastic most burnt in houses are the plastic carry bags, environmentalists warn about colours. Anything coloured can have lethal dyes and plastic bags are no different. Heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium - you name it, they may have it.
Besides, the plasticisers added to the bags to increase flexibility contain phthalates such as Diisononyl phthalate (DINP) and DEHP, which are even called gender-bending chemicals, as they mimic hormones and can cause a number of reproductive disorders.
Other chemicals released while burning plastics include benzo(a)pyrene (BAP) and other polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have both been shown to cause cancer. If plastics are burned with other materials, additional toxic chemicals may be created from the interaction of the different substances.
Even as plastic is being burnt with no discretion and even as the number of people with respiratory disorders is on the increase, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (PCB) has not felt there is anything amiss. ‘’Sorry, we have not noticed any such difference in the air quality,’ said PCB Chairman K Sajeevan.
But don’t they have an ongoing programme to monitor the air quality at various locations? ‘’Yes, we do. But we have not seen any observation that suggests deterioration of air quality,’’ he clarified.
Forget the air, unburned portions of the plastic become litter on the ground and in lakes and rivers. As it disintegrates, animals may eat the plastic and get sick. Larger pieces of plastic can become a breeding ground for diseases, such as by trapping water that provides habitat for mosquitoes. Come monsoon, this can translate into major epidemic outbreaks.