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9 in hospital

By Janelle De Souza Friday, January 31 2014

click on pic to zoom in
Masked: A woman wears a mask as she walks along Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain yesterday. ...
Masked: A woman wears a mask as she walks along Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain yesterday. ...

Nine persons have been hospitalised for respiratory illness as smoke spewing from the Beetham landfill continues to sicken members of the public, and disrupt life in the capital city of Port-of- Spain (PoS) for a fourth day.

Banks, schools and public offices closed shortly after opening yesterday as persons complained about the smell and effects of the smoke emanating from the Beetham landfill, where a fire still rages.

Many persons complained about nausea, sneezing, tightness of the chest, breathing and other respiratory problems although the landfill was closed on Wednesday.

Chairman of the North-West Regional Health Authority (NWRHA) Dr Edison Haqq said nine persons were hospitalised at several medical institutions with respiratory illnesses due to the smoke.

He told Newsday there has been a definite increase in the number of cases of asthma and asthma-related complaints in PoS. “We usually see a seasonal increase of cases during the dry season and we see approximately 12 persons per day. However, we have seen an average of 16 or 17 cases over the past few days,” said Haqq.

He said the numbers seemed to be approaching this new average yesterday, but noted that sometimes there is a delayed effect to the inhalation of smoke, and so some may not feel the effects until the night. In order to serve these persons, both the Barataria and Woodbrook Health Centres remained opened until 9 pm as they were equipped with nebulisers and asthma treatments. A woman stated that, as soon as she entered City Gate yesterday, she began to cough because of the smoke. She said while her employer did not close the business, many employees returned to their homes for the sake of their health.

Another woman, wearing a dust mask while walking along the Brian Lara Promenade, said the smoke had affected her earlier, between the hours of 7 am and 9 am. In addition to the smell, she said she had sinus problems and breathing in the smoke left an unpleasant taste in her mouth.

Frank Uknowho, a sanitary worker on the promenade concurred. “You felt it all in your chest and when you swallow your own saliva, you taste it in your mouth. I was in a constant state of nausea early this morning,” he said.

Uknowho admitted the smoke “came and went” with the breeze and so he experienced some relief during his work day. He too wore a dust mask provided to him by his employer.

Meanwhile, government offices, such as the Inland Revenue Division on St Vincent Street and the Service Commissions Department on Woodford Street were both closed for the day. NALIS and National Petroleum (NP) in Sea Lots too remained closed.

In addition, 15 primary schools and five secondary schools sent students home early. By 9.30 am, students of Newtown Boys’ RC, Bethlehem Boys’ RC, St Roses RC, Rosary Boys’ RC, St Hilda’s Government, Moulton Hall Methodist, Mucurapo Boys’ RC, Mucurapo Girls’ RC, Belmont Boys’ RC, Belmont Girls’ RC, St Ursula’s AC, Maria Regina Grade School, Piccadilly Government, Sacred Heart Girls’, and St Agnes AC Primary schools were all returning home or at least leaving their schools. St Mary’s College, Belmont Secondary, St Joseph’s Convent, Queen’s Royal College and Holy Name Convent had all dismissed classes.

A teacher at Maria Regina stated that at about 7.30 am, she could not see anything on Duke Street from St Vincent Street. “The students who were already there, we sent inside because they were already complaining of burning eyes and nausea and basically panicking because they had seen news reports the previous night talking about how toxic the smoke was. The other students were sent back home as they reached the gates because we didn’t want another day like yesterday (Wednesday),” she sighed. She recalled that on Wednesday, students suffered from asthma attacks, sinus attacks, sneezing, coughing, nausea and tightness in the chest.

Most banks closed the doors of their Port-of-Spain branches. RBC Royal Bank closed its Independence Square and Park Street branches at noon, saying the smoke was affecting their employees. FCB and Scotiabank closed early for the same reason, while Republic Bank soldiered on although the few employees who were affected by the smoke were allowed to leave.

However businesses in downtown Port-of-Spain had a similar attitude as Republic Bank and remained open although affected employees were sent home. The ill-effects of the smoke continued to be felt by many despite reassurances from the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) that the air quality in Port-of-Spain remains stabalised. This means that, while the air quality had not yet returned to normal, the levels were within the acceptable readings of the Draft Air Pollution rules of 150 microgrammes.

On Wednesday, the EMA stated the toxicity level of the air in the city was 13 times that which was considered safe. At about10.30 am yesterday, EMA officials tested the air quality near the police post on Independence Square, but declined to comment. However, in a press release later, the EMA noted that it continued to be concerned about the areas of Beetham and Sea Lots although toxicity levels had reduced.

As the smoke continues to blow in and out of the city, the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers’ Association (TTMA) expressed concern about the impact of the toxic smoke and called on Government to prioritise the relocation of the Beetham landfill and to fast-track the establishment of an efficient waste recycling system.

“The situation is affecting every person moving through, living in or working in the capital city. Business productivity has been impacted, as several companies have had to close or stop operations due to the effects of the smoke on their employees. It is unclear at this time what the long-term effects of exposure to this smoke will have on the health of citizens,” the TTMA stated in a release.

It noted that in May 2013, EMA CEO, Dr Joth Singh, said the Beetham landfill was almost at maximum capacity and should be closed. In addition, in the 2008 Budget, the then government announced the opening of tenders for new cost effective solid waste disposal facilities and the subsequent closure and rehabilitation of the Beetham landfill.

The Solid Waste Management Company Ltd (SWMCOL) yesterday reported that fires in one of the two remaining affected areas at the landfill were extinguished and assured that it was expected that the second lit area would be fully contained “in due course.”

Minister of Finance Larry Howai yesterday expressed “concern” over the smog situation which has enveloped Port-of-Spain and environs this week, stating the Cabinet yesterday discussed initiatives needed to expeditiously deal with the situation.

At a post-Cabinet media briefing held at the Office of the Prime Minister, St Clair, Howai was asked whether he was concerned about the impact this would have on business in the city.

“There are a number of risks one always faces on an ongoing basis in doing business,” he said. “And certainly all of these are of concern to me, specifically with what is happening with the environment.” He said the issue of oil-spills at southwest Trinidad was another such issue.

“Those are things that we are going to have to continue to manage on an ongoing basis,” he said. “I have had discussions with my fellow ministers about initiatives that need to be put in place to deal with these matters expeditiously to ensure that there is as little disruption as possible for the national community.” Howai did not divulge the initiatives.

Minister of Energy Kevin Ramnarine, also at the same briefing, was asked about the plan to deal with the situation. He said, “This is a matter for the Minister of the Environment (Ganga Singh) and the Minister of Local Government (Marlene Coudray),” he said. “It was discussed today. We looked at possible solutions.” Ramnarine remarked that there is potential to harvest methane from the Beetham Landfill, the area which has been identified as the source of the smog.

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