• The fire has been burning in Kerala's Brahmapuram landfill for over a week
  • Smoke continues to engulf the port city of Kochi as residents struggle to breath
  • The exact cause of the fire is still not known

Residents in the southern Indian port city of Kochi have been choking on toxic fumes after a fire broke out in a massive trash mountain last week. A week after the incident, amid allegations of a lethargic response from the state government, firefighters are still struggling to douse the flames as residents live trapped in a city that looks and feels more like a gas chamber.

The fire broke out at the Brahmapuram waste plant in the southern Indian state of Kerala on March 2. It is an overfilled dumping site the size of 12 football fields and holds an estimated 550,000 tonnes of waste.

A team of 30 fire units with a total of 120 firefighters have been deployed at the site to fight the flames. Helicopters from the Indian Navy and Air Force are also dumping water on the fire but the adverse wind conditions have intensified fire and smoke, making it difficult to battle the blaze. Authorities have also deployed diggers at the site to pick up the garbage and move it while water is being pumped into the landfill. No one knows when the fire can be brought under control.

No casualties have been reported so far except a few firemen who suffered from smoke inhalation.

However, the city with a population of 2.1 million is still covered in toxic smoke and the residents complain of the unbearable stench of burning plastics, watering eyes and asthma attacks. As the smoke continues, they are now worried about the health issues that await them.

"The strong smell of burning plastic filled our entire apartment. We could see dark grey smoke right outside our windows. It's already flu season and both my kids just recovered from a cough. I am now worried how the poisonous gases are going to trigger another bout of cough in them," Julie Sajai, who lives close to Brahmapuram, told International Business Times.

Officials monitoring the situation say they have not seen any spike in reports of lung diseases in connection with the incident. However, young children, the elderly, pregnant women and asthmatic patients are advised to be cautious.

Schools are closed in the region since Monday and residents have been advised to wear N95 masks when they step out. A medical camp was conducted at the site to evaluate the health condition of firefighters working at the site.

The Brahmapuram waste plant was set up in 2008 after a series of protests from residents against the dumping of unsegregated waste at landfills in Kochi's suburbs. However, the plant, which was owned and operated by the city authorities, was soon converted into a landfill.

According to a report from National Green Tribunal – the country's statutory body that deals with environmental cases – only 1% of the recyclable plastic waste that comes to the Brahmapuram waste plant is recovered, while the remaining 99% ends up as heaps in the dumping yard. There had been reports of fire breakouts at the yard in the past as well and the agency believes legacy waste accumulation over years could have caused those incidents.

"We take great effort to segregate plastic and bio waste at our apartment. But at the end of the day, if this is how they manage waste at the plant, what is the whole point?" Jose Antony, associate director at a software firm in Kochi, told International Business Times.

Kerala's top court Tuesday observed that residents are "trapped in a gas chamber" like situation even though there are no industries in the vicinity. It also ordered authorities to streamline the waste management in Kochi before June 6.

The exact cause of the fire is still not known, and there are speculations that it could be the result of sabotage.

There are allegations that the dump was deliberately set on fire at a time when one of the contractors engaged in waste removal from the plant was seeking an extension to their term.

Kerala is governed by a leftist coalition that has faced multiple corruption charges and the contractors are reportedly connected to leaders of the main left party. But local reportage on the murky details of the fire and a lack of action from the state government on fighting the toxic fire has remained scanty, amid allegations that communists wield influence over the press in the state.

"Before an extension, a site inspection is to be carried out. As the inspection would have revealed the lack of waste clearance operations, the fire was deliberately set to conceal the actual situation on the ground," said V.D. Satheesan, an opposition legislator, Business Standard reported.

According to researchers, burning plastic releases pollutants like microplastics, bisphenols and phthalates that can disrupt neurodevelopment, endocrine and reproductive functions.

"It is now very well recognized that factors other than tobacco smoke, especially atmospheric pollutants, are a leading cause of acute and chronic respiratory diseases and this has been acknowledged by different societies like Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease in case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and Global Initiative for Asthma in case of asthma. It is also recognized that open burning of anthropogenic sources can release hazardous emissions and has been associated with the increasing prevalence of heart, as well as lung heart diseases," Dr. Rajesh, a senior pulmonologist at a hospital in Kochi, told IBT.

In India, 62 million tons of trash is generated annually and out of the collected 43 million tons, only 12 million tons undergo treatment, while the rest go to landfills.

A study on "Toxic Pollutants from Plastic Waste" has estimated that about 12% of trash is made up of plastic. Massive amounts of dioxins and other highly toxic pollutants released from burning plastics not only cause inhalation hazards but can enter the food chain.

"The composition of materials that are burned vary and accordingly the potential toxicity also varies. The largest contributor of particulate emissions from flaming combustion is plastic smoke, which contains approximately 20 times higher particulate matter than other burn pit smoke emissions. The toxic smoke and fumes from the Brahmapuram fire incident might also have adverse effects on heart and lung health. But we have to wait and see the magnitude and extent of this problem," Dr. Rajesh added.

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