Residents in Anxious Wait for Tire Factory Toxin Results

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Residents living near the site of a massive tire fire in North Canterbury may have to wait weeks to find out what toxins they have been exposed to. The Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) issued a public health warning saying the primary contaminant is sulfur dioxide, which can cause respiratory problems such as bronchitis and has been linked to cardiovascular disease.

As per press reports, thousands of tires left in an Amberley yard for years were set on fire on January 29 – the second fire in the yard in three years. Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) medical officer of health Cheryl Brunton told a public meeting in Amberley on they should not hold back on planting crops. She said it could take even longer until they were completely free of the tire stockpile that had been plaguing the community for almost five years.

Chemical Analyses Were Needed

Authorities had been scrambling to provide specific answers to the community’s health concerns since the fire happened on January 29. Brunton said she was satisfied with the initial public health advice, which was to tell people to stay away from the smoke. She could not say what carcinogenic toxins people and animals had been subjected to, as “bespoke” chemical analyses were needed, and the results were not available yet.

In a study that was completed in the wake of a similar incident in Iowa, the US, in 2012, where an estimated 1.3 million shredded tires went up in flames, the results of which were alarming, he said.

“Let’s make it clear; there have been carcinogenic and mutagenic compounds released from the [Amberley] property and that will continue until remediation is complete […] the immediate area should have been evacuated, especially of pregnant women, and Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) staff should have been using respiratory equipment and wearing hazmat suits.” Amberley District Residents’ Association chairman Roy Myers said he had calculated between 3000 and 4000 tons of carbon dioxide was emitted in the fire. 

Sad and Unfortunate

Former UK doctor Andrew Richardson who lives just over 1km from the Racecourse Rd tire fire, questioned why there had been no preparation to deal with public health in the event of a fire, despite a 2018 fire significantly increasing the likelihood. Said authorities were disinterested when asked about the health risks to those living nearby, which was “sad and unfortunate”. While Fire and Emergency NZ (Fenz) and ECan had planned for the eventuality of another fire and determined water and foam would not be used to protect the groundwater, he questioned what health officials had undertaken planning.

Speaking at a meeting called to address the residents’ concerns about the disappointing response from health authorities, Dr. Andrew Richardson said it was not good enough for authorities to pass the buck when people’s health was at stake, and a plan should have been in place well ahead of the January 29 fire, he said. While the site is no longer producing toxic smoke, it has only been covered with soil, meaning the groundwater is at risk of contamination in a heavy rain event.

Sad and Unfortunate

Environment Canterbury northern zone delivery manager Andrew Arps said options for capping the area were being worked through and included a clay cap, or a membrane with vents, as recommended by environmental consultant Tonkin Taylor. It was still up to the landowner to fully remediate the site, but Arps said there was no indication of how much that would cost or how long it was taken. Accountability Action co-founder Bruce Gledhill was not at Thursday’s meeting but said there was no excuse for a delay in capping the site. The rain had already fallen in the area this week.

“Elected officials need to put pressure on staff to just get it done – the capping has to happen today, this is moronic.”

His fellow co-founder, Julia Mclean, who was at the meeting, said the buck stopped with ECan and always had.

“We have no faith in the regional authority getting a result on behalf of the community in this instance and that’s why we want the environment minister to have firm focus on this situation.”

Sulfur dioxide dissolves in water or steam to form sulfurous acid. Liquid sulfur dioxide corrodes iron, brass, copper, and some forms of plastic and rubber. Many metals, including zinc, aluminum, cesium, iron, incandesce and/or ignite in unheated sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide reacts explosively when it comes in contact with sodium hydride. Sulfur dioxide ignites when it is mixed with lithium acetylene carbide diamino or lithium acetylide ammonia.

Health Effects

  1. Sulfur dioxide is severely irritating to the eyes, mucous membranes, skin, and respiratory tract. Bronchospasm, pulmonary edema, pneumonitis, and acute airway obstruction can occur.
  2. Inhalation exposure to very low sulfur dioxide concentrations can aggravate chronic pulmonary diseases, such as asthma and emphysema. Certain highly sensitive asthmatics may develop bronchospasm when exposed to sulfur dioxide or sulfite-preserved foods.
  3. Sulfur dioxide reacts with water in the upper airway to form hydrogen, bisulfite, and sulfite, all of which induce irritation. As a result, reflex bronchoconstriction increases airway resistance.

High-level acute exposures have resulted in pulmonary fibrosis, chronic bronchitis, and chemical bronchopneumonia with bronchiolitis obliterans. Bronchospasm can be triggered in individuals with underlying lung disease, especially those who have asthma and emphysema. Rarely, new-onset airway hyperreactivity, known as reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS), develops in patients without prior bronchospasm.

Chronic Exposure

Chronic exposure can result in an altered sense of smell (including increased tolerance to low levels of sulfur dioxide), increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis symptoms, and accelerated decline in pulmonary function. Chronic exposure may be more serious for children because of their potential longer life span.

Children exposed to the same sulfur dioxide levels as adults may receive a larger dose because they have greater lung surface area: body weight ratios and increased minute volumes: weight ratios. Besides, they may be exposed to higher levels than adults in the same location because of their short stature, and the higher levels of sulfur dioxide found nearer to the ground, and because they are slow to leave the site of exposure.

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