As Brahmapuram fire smoulders on Day 12, a look at how toxic the air in Kochi really is

Can smoke from Brahmapuram lead to cancer? South First finds out the health hazards the fire may cause in Kerala's "smoke city".

ByChetana Belagere

Published Mar 14, 2023 | 9:00 AM Updated Mar 14, 2023 | 9:00 AM

A doctor attached to the mobile unit of the health department checks a child at Vennala, Kochi, on Monday. (Facebook/District Collector)

Even as several people are fleeing or have already fled Kochi to escape the suffocating acrid smell of burning plastic — and its ill effects — that has engulfed several parts of Kerala’s commercial capital, a woman claimed that her husband was the first victim of the Brahmapuram waste plant fire.

Lawrence Joseph, a 70-year-old patient of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), died on Monday, 13 March, his wife Lizzy told reporters.

The smoke from Kochi’s Brahmapuram fire aggravated his condition, leading to his death, she claimed.

“His condition worsened from last Wednesday and he complained of breathing trouble. The disgusting smell of the burning plastic made him uneasy and caused it,” the Vazhakkala resident said on Monday.

The state government has not responded to her allegation.

The Health Department is expected to begin a door-to-door survey on Tuesday to identify people facing health issues due to the toxic Kochi smoke.

Though the authorities claimed that the Kochi fire that broke out on 2 March has been completely extinguished, smoke is still billowing from the mounds of garbage left untreated in the dump yard.

South First spoke to a few health experts on the short- and long-term health impact the smoke may cause on humans.

Kochi smoke a worrying situation

Opposition leader VD Satheesan termed the situation worrying, adding that it endangered senior citizens, children, and pregnant women.

Doctors concurred and said that the smoke from the Open Burning of Waste (OBW) can lead to various health-related complications.

“This fire broke out in a  waste dump yard spread over several acres in the Ernakulam district, and today is the 12th day of the blaze,” Kochi-based Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, former president of the Indian Medical Association, told South First on Monday.

“Most of the [Kochi] fire has been put out, and about five percent is remaining to be extinguished,” he added.

According to rough estimates, the about-40-acre yard held 5.5 lakh tonnes of waste when the fire broke out.

Related: Malayalam film fraternity expresses agony over Kochi fire

Understanding Kochi smoke toxicity

Jayadevan said the particles that come out of the Kochi fire should be understood. Two things emanate from burning waste: Particulate Matter (PM) and gases.

A mobile medical camp held at Vyttila, Kochi, on Monday over the Kochi smoke and fire

A mobile medical camp held at Vyttila, Kochi, on Monday. (Facebook/District Collector)

“The PM could be very small, like PM2.5 or bigger, like PM10. These are dust-like particles but predominantly carbon. They may have traces of chemicals depending on what is burning and also some suspended fluid particles,” he said.

“They do not settle down but hang in the air for some time and move with the wind. People living far from the place of fire may feel the impact at a certain time and some may feel it at other times,” he pointed out.

“It also depends on the temperature. In the mornings we may get a strong burning smell. After 9.30 am, when it gets hotter, the foul air goes up, making way for fresh air. So this is what we are observing right now. Also, those closer to the burning site will be more exposed to the particles,” he added.

Doctors said people at risk, especially those with pulmonary issues like COPD, asthma, or allergic bronchitis, should be immediately identified.

Related: Kerala HC says Kochi people in gas chamber-like situation

Impact on health due to burning Kochi waste

Jayadevan said the health effects of this waste burning are two-fold: Immediate and long term.

The Brahmapuram dump yard in Kochi where the plastic waste caught fire leading to pollution

The Brahmapuram dump yard. (Facebook/District Collector)

Immediate effects are already being experienced. “Many of us are experiencing burning eyes, sore throat, bitter taste in the mouth, cough, breathing trouble, headache, nausea, vomiting, and even fatigue, besides some skin problems,” he explained.

These symptoms are short-term and may not require hospitalisation.

Among in-patients, there are only a few cases, and that too those with pre-existing lung conditions. Also, longer exposure to toxic fumes could lead to COPD in senior citizens.

Meanwhile, Dr Nitin Yashas, a consultant of medical oncology and haemato-oncology at HCG Cancer Care Centre, explained that the proportion of plastic is more in the waste that is burning.

The short-term complications are mostly dermatology-related and pulmonary. However, the long-term impact of this seemingly shorter exposure — as in Kochi — is not known.

“Short-term issues tend to be usually respiratory and dermatological: Irritation in the eyes and throat, headache, fatigue, nausea, etc. Those prone to asthma may find it exacerbating due to inhaling the fumes,” Yashas explained.

Also read: Scientists uncover link between air pollution and lung cancer

Will burning Kochi plastic cause cancer?

Speaking to South First, faculty in charge of the Centre for Public Health at Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Dr PS Rakesh, said that burning plastics could lead to the release of many harmful chemicals.

The chemicals include dioxins, furans, aldehydes, aromatic hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide.

“Continuous exposure to such chemicals can cause several health issues. An increase in PM can irritate the respiratory tract, and cause an eye infection, dizziness, asthma, and other respiratory illness,” he explained.

Dioxins are persistent organic pollutants that can remain in the air for a long time and enter humans through food.

Prolonged exposure to high doses of it can cause problems in reproduction, hormonal imbalance, and thyroid issues. Some of them are carcinogenic.

People with lung diseases and cardiac conditions, pregnant women, and elderly people may face problems if exposed to such chemicals.

Yashas explained that the chemicals released from burning waste are carcinogenic. Increased PM levels and long-term exposure to chemicals increase the risk of cancer.

Kochi pollution: No need to panic

However, Jayadevan warned that the possibility of cancer due to the Kochi smoke should not create panic. “It’s not that this smoke can lead to cancer. Cancer happens in those who have prolonged exposure to heavier doses of chemicals,” he said.

“Diesel fumes are in the highest category of cancer-causing substances. They used to be type 2B now they are upgraded to type 1, which puts them at the same level of cigarette smoke,” he pointed out.

“Most of us have been inhaling diesel fumes for several years and not everyone is dying of cancer. Even if we are exposed to the highest category of cancer-causing smoke, we must take it in a particular context and understand that only prolonged and higher doses of exposure may lead to cancer,” he explained.

Jayadevan opined that short-term exposure would not lead to cancer and any increase in cancer risk will be minuscule — like four to 40 cases in about one crore individuals exposed to the smoke.

“However, this explanation should not be misunderstood as I am trivialising the issue. It is an issue that should be seriously addressed,” he hastened to add.

Kochi waste on fire: Doctors’ advisory

1. Keep the windows shut whenever the pollution in Kochi is high.
2. Use air-conditioners in recirculation mode and not in ventilation mode.
3. Pregnant women, the elderly, children, and those with pulmonary issues should stay indoors.
4. Stay hydrated.
5. In case of any symptoms of illness, consult a doctor. Do not self-medicate.

Also read: Exposure to air pollution in infancy increases risk of obesity, diabetes; best counter is breast milk