As winter falls, it brings a couple of environmental concerns. A common practice during this time is burning leaves. Since the percentage of precipitation is the lowest during winter, the weather tends to get drier throughout the season. The wind blows dust, fine particles and smoke from one area to another. And it contributes to air pollution.
Burning leaves may seem like an innocuous practice. But it not only causes air pollution, but also holds the potential to cause respiratory illness. It can even cause cancer with the dangerous particles present in the smoke.
Leaf burning: Health Hazard
Leaf burning is illegal & prohibited in most municipal areas. And there are specific guidelines from the Fire Department about leaf disposal. But unfortunately, open leaf-burning is a very common practice during winter in Dhaka. And almost nobody seems to care about it.
According to a paper published in the Journal of the Air Pollution Control Association 27 (6), 1977: leaf burning generates dangerously large quantities of carbon monoxide, particulates, and at least seven proven carcinogens. Another study concludes that open leaf burning under normal conditions represent a significant health hazard for people suffering from asthma.
In an ideal environment, leaves would fall on the ground and naturally decompose. Thus it would return the elements to nature in a safe manner. In contrast, the burning of leaves releases harmful gases. Not to mention the metals, organic acids, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and other harmful agents.
Suffice to say that inhaling these chemical species will lead to breathing problems. Especially for those who are already suffering from respiratory complications. The problem of leaf-burning is more aggravated as people tend to burn other things in the process; more often plastics, polythene bags and household garbage. Burning of plastics can release dioxins which are “highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems and also damage the immune system.”
About three weeks ago, Dhaka city ranked the worst in the world in terms of air quality. Even today, the US AQI value of Dhaka ranges within 120-250. To note, there are six levels of air quality; any score above 200 indicates air that is very unhealthy to breathe in.
Normally, sporadic leaf-burning does not cause any major issue. But when it is carried out on a regular basis in one geographic area, it can contribute to the release of air particles that exceed the air quality standard. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “…leaf and yard waste burning simultaneously in a particular locale can cause air pollution rivalling that from factories and motor vehicles.”
Such rampant burning of garbage, leaves and waste materials on the city roads is an extremely bad practice. And it has a direct impact on the elderly, children and immuno-compromised people. It is a practice that needs to stop immediately, both by the road-cleaners and also by the city-dwellers. There are easier ways to deal with this kind of waste.
Alternatives to burning leaves
Leaf as a biomaterial can be easily decomposed by the soil bacteria. And it can naturally improve soil quality. Instead of burning the leaves, this precious biomass material can be put into the ground by digging up a small space in the soil. And the resulting compost can actually work as a fertilizer. In many cities, City Corporation schedules a specific time to clean up and collect leaf and yard wastes. We can also adopt this system.
Whatever the case is, burning leaves in city areas is not a solution for waste disposal. Because it is hazardous and dangerous. We need to do a favour for our city by raising awareness among people about air pollution and stopping the bad practices as much as we can.