Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Recycling Center Fires Causing Huge Health Risk

Recycling Centre Fires Causing Huge Health Risk

A spate of blazes at recycling centres raises the question of whether our drive for sustainability comes at a price.
The night sky is painted orange, and a dark silhouette hovers on an aerial platform, spraying water into the light, tackling a blaze that has been burning for almost three days already. This isn’t a wildfire, or a building burning, but tonnes of waste waiting to be recycled.

The fire at Bredbury Recycling Centre, near Manchester, is one of at least five that IFSEC Global has been made aware of in August so far. It broke out on Tuesday night, and as of Friday afternoon shows little sign of abating. In his latest update, station manager Paul Whittaker speaks of meeting with the police, the environment agency, and the council "to develop a plan for the bank holiday weekend."
Meanwhile in Nottinghamshire, just yesterday, a fire broke out at another recycling centre for the second time in three weeks. The first blaze was sparked on Saturday, August 3, and took them over a week to bring under control. Then yesterday, a second fire broke out in another part of the recycling facility in Worksop.
So what is going on? Why are there so many fires, why do they last so long, and don’t they present a risk to public health and safety?
Difficult to tackle
The why is difficult to answer, but undoubtedly the vast amount of combustible waste, stored in close proximity and in tightly packed conditions, is a huge contributor and has a large amount to do with why the fires last so long.
Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue’s Bryn Coleman explained the problem with the first fire at Worksop:
The fire is seated deep within a large amount of household waste therefore simply putting water onto it meant that only the top was being damped down, while the rest of it was still burning. The more water we put onto it, the more smoke there is, and clearly this is a concern for anyone living nearby.
In most cases firefighters are able to contain the fire and extinguish the majority of the visible flames, but the fire will continue to smoulder underneath the surface. The tactics that officers then use will be to turn the bales and damp them down gradually. Coleman explained on Friday, August 9:
At a meeting on site today, it was decided that the best way forward is to break down the burning rubbish into smaller chunks, damping it down as we go. The site owners will spend the weekend clearing enough space on site for us to do this, and our crews will return on Monday to continue the fire fighting operation.
For firefighters to leave the blaze, which is under control but still burning, is common in these incidents, but it shows how vast an operation this can often be.
Public health
Another significant problem with these blazes is the public health concerns. Many recycling centres are in central locations, unlike landfill sites, which are usually in an area with a lower population density. When these fires break out, Public Health England has to issue its usual advice. Indeed, we found this on each of the reports we read about recent blazes:
Smoke consists of a mixture of gases, liquid droplets and solid particles representing the decomposition and combustion products from fires. Any smoke can be an irritant and as such, if people have to be outdoors, they are advised to avoid outside areas affected by any smoke or ash or to limit the time that they spend in them.
Some of the substances present in smoke can irritate the lining of the air passages, the skin and the eyes. Respiratory symptoms include coughing and wheezing, breathlessness, sputum (phlegm) production and chest pain. If symptoms occur, people should seek medical advice or call NHS 111.
All of this means that firefighters have to work with scientists in order to test the air quality and the makeup of any smoke-carried debris. #smethwickfire

The scale of the problem facing fire services and public health officials was really underlined by a massive fire in Smethwick, near Birmingham, on June 30, believed to have been caused by a Chinese lantern. The incident was classed a “major incident” and saw 429 calls made to the emergency services -- more than three times the daily average. The fire could reportedly be seen over 40 miles away.

In the weeks following the incident, West Midlands Fire Service produced a remarkable video collating all of the data and information it had on the major incident. In response, the issue of Chinese Lanterns was debated in Parliament, and High Street shop Poundland stopped selling them. At the end of the video they make the point that there are 57 recycling centres in the West Midlands alone, which underlines the potential for incidents continuing to stretch fire service resources.
Around 20 fires have struck West Midlands recycling centres this year so far with another breaking out on Monday, August 5.

With so many recycling centres to protect from fire, how long will it be until firefighters are unable to contain the blaze within the confines of the site? With cuts facing fire services across the country, don’t we need to tackle the causes of these fires before serious harm is done to a community?

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