Toxic Burn: Health Risks of Solid Waste Incineration

Written by: Engr Asghar Hayat

Written by: Engr Asghar Hayat

Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, grapples with a pressing environmental concern – the rampant open burning of municipal, agricultural, and industrial waste, posing a severe threat to both air quality and public health. The repercussions of this practice are far-reaching, with hazardous emissions, including particulate matter, dioxins, and Volatile Organic Compounds, contributing to the city’s enveloping smog, leading to respiratory and cardiovascular issues among its residents.

Cities like Islamabad, with an annual municipal waste production of a staggering 48.5 million tons, are confronted with substantial challenges in implementing sustainable waste management strategies. Inefficient waste collection systems result in the accumulation of waste, often culminating in open burning, particularly in areas underserved by proper waste disposal services. To address this imminent concern, the Institute of Urbanism (IoU) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) collaboratively organized a Twitter Space, shedding light on the far-reaching impact of open waste burning on smog, public health, and the environment.

Despite the widespread prevalence of waste burning across numerous Pakistani cities, a dearth of documented data exists pinpointing the most problematic areas or uncovering the root causes behind the incendiary disposal of municipal waste. A recent survey conducted by IoU in both Islamabad and Lahore has revealed a stark lack of awareness among respondents regarding existing laws against this hazardous practice and the associated environmental and health risks.

Recognizing the global challenge posed by waste burning, the Royal Academy of Engineering is actively engaged in 19 projects worldwide. These initiatives focus on vulnerable groups, advocating for improved waste management practices, citizen reporting mechanisms, and regulatory enforcement. Dr. Mansoor Ali, RAE’s Theme Lead, underscored the comprehensive nature of these programs, addressing national policies, city frameworks, and grassroots practices. This holistic strategy acknowledges the intricate link between waste burning and the livelihoods of individuals, particularly waste pickers.

Lahore, once celebrated as the “city of gardens,” has sadly transformed into a “gas chamber” over the past decade, witnessing a troubling 75% reduction in greenery. Imrana Tiwana, an Environmental Activist, shared the genesis of the Lahore Bachao Tehreek, a movement addressing smog-related issues. This movement, originating 16 years ago, led to a historic Supreme Court judgment and the introduction of the Canal Urban Heritage Path Act, recognizing the environment as a vital heritage and public trust for the first time.

Exposure to pollutants from open waste burning during the smog season poses severe health risks, disproportionately affecting vulnerable demographics. Children, the elderly, and low-income communities are particularly susceptible. Dr. Abdullah Najam, Postgraduate Resident Pulmonologist at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, highlighted how toxic air exacerbates existing health conditions, leading to respiratory and cardiovascular complications across diverse demographic groups.

In Islamabad, a routine waste collection of 600 to 700 tons occurred until the previous year, with the disposal site located in the I-12 sector. Citizen’s lighting fires for warmth during the winter exacerbated air pollution threats. Sardar Khan Zimri, former Director General of the Sanitation Department and current Director General of Water Management at the Capital Development Authority, emphasized the need for targeted awareness campaigns to effectively address this issue.

Karachi, facing a daily challenge of managing 15,000 tons of municipal solid waste, grapples with open burning issues in low-income areas. The Karachi School of Business and Leadership’s ‘Mapping of Open Burning’ project seeks to connect these incidents with social vulnerabilities, utilizing spatial mapping and key analytical tools. Shiza Aslam, a Waste Management Specialist & Research Fellow at KSBL, highlighted the pivotal role of impactful media coverage in drawing attention to the correlation between open burning and smog. This coverage prompts communities to reconsider waste disposal practices and encourages municipalities to adopt cleaner alternatives, fostering positive change.

Farid Rais, a Senior Anchorperson, underscored the imperative need for massive awareness initiatives, engaging various stakeholders and building partnerships with public and private institutions, media, academia, and more. The Twitter Space served as a crucial platform for raising awareness about the critical issue of open waste burning and its detrimental effects on air quality, public health, and the overall environment. The insights shared by the esteemed panel of speakers underscore the urgency of addressing this pressing concern in Pakistan. Augmenting the discourse with additional facts and figures on municipal waste production and the challenges faced by cities, particularly Islamabad, highlights the imperative for immediate and sustainable waste management solutions. The collective call to action resonates with the importance of a united effort to combat air pollution and safeguard the well-

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