Gas expert from UNECE and chemical engineer by training Branko Milićević says the question is not whether dangerous dioxins and furans are in the air after a major fire erupted at the Vinča landfill in Belgrade but how much, as their levels aren’t measured. He warned the incident could get international significance.
The Vinča landfill is still smoldering while firefighters are trying to put out a fire that started last week and toxic smoke keeps spreading throughout Serbia’s capital Belgrade. Such events create favorable conditions for the synthesis of dioxins and furans – elevated pressures and temperatures, the presence of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), PET plastic bottles, other aromatic polymers, salts, pesticides, chlorinated substances, according to Branko Milićević, Secretary of the Group of Experts on Gas in the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).
He told Balkan Green Energy News the two families of heterocyclic chemical compounds are dangerous and pointed to the grave consequences of a 1976 industrial accident in Italy. The question is not whether dioxins and furans were released but what the quantities are, as their levels aren’t measured, according to Milićević.
Landfill fires create favorable conditions for the synthesis of dioxins and furans
In the meantime, a Chinese market burned down in New Belgrade, adding to concerns about health risks for the city’s population. There were hundreds of shops, restaurants and storage rooms in the building, with consumer goods, food products, clothes and tools.
When chlorinated – with up to eight atoms of chlorine – they are called polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs), Milićević adds. Their common feature are three rings, the one in the middle with one atom of oxygen, in the case of furans, or two of them in dioxins, as shown in the picture.
The most extensively studied is the infamous 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, known as TCDD.
Half-life of dioxins is 15 years
Dioxins and furans are chemically stable, long-living and toxic persistent organic pollutants (POPs). They are regulated by the Stockholm Convention that aims to eliminate or restrict their production and use. Unlike other POPs, dioxins and furans are not produced intentionally. They are byproducts of other processes, sometimes present as impurities.
The two toxic compounds were certainly released during the fire, Milićević underscored.
“What worries me is the reaction of various officials who seem to play things down, dismiss warnings, pass the blame on others, and see this as a political problem. This is not a political problem, or not yet, but a health and environmental one. The authorities should understand that the persistent organic pollutants are here to stay for many years – the half-life of TCDD is around 15 years” . We cannot just sweep them under the rug and pretend they do not exist. It is better that we measure them in the air and soil today, then to do so in the bones and blood in 10 years ” he warned.
In Milićević’s view, measuring the concentrations of particulate matter PM2.5 and PM10 in the air is insufficient. What matters is the chemical composition of the soot coming out from the landfill, to determine if it carries dioxins and furans on its surface or inside. “I would not be surprised if elevated concentrations of other POPs are found,” UNECE’s gas expert stressed.
Danube can be affected
If the agencies in charge of environmental protection can measure the levels of dioxins, furans and other POPs but are instructed not do so, the issue can shift to an international stage, Milićević claims.
Authorities in Belgrade and Serbia must determine the extent of the damage from the Vinča landfill fire, in line with the Stockholm convention
“Here is how: poor landfill management may worsen the water quality of the Danube and its tributaries. If the landfills along the Danube start to leach extensively a juice enriched with POPs, the EU might feel obliged to step in on behalf of the two European Union downriver member states – Romania and Bulgaria. We must take POPs seriously – on 29 October 2009 the Stockholm Convention entered into force in Serbia and became part of the domestic legislation, so a refusal to act might be treated as a case of criminal negligence.” he warned.
Dioxin and furan concentrations in the soil near the landfill site must be measured as soon as possible and compared to values elsewhere, UNECE’s gas expert said. He added the environmental, economic, and social consequences can be grave.
In July 1976 in Seveso, a small town near Milan, a chemical reactor released six tons of chemicals that sprayed over an area of six by three kilometers. Most of the material was benign, but it contained one kilogram of TCDD. More than 3,000 animals – mostly chicken and rabbits – were found dead within a few days, Milićević noted.
Thousands more were slaughtered to prevent TCDD from entering the food chain. Some 15 children were hospitalized with skin inflammation. By the end of August, the worst area (zone A) had been completely evacuated and fenced. Out of 1,600 residents who were medically examined, 447 – or one in three – were found to suffer from the so-called chloracne. An advice center was set up for pregnant women; 26 of them opted for an abortion, just in case.
TCDD dioxin killed thousands of animals in the 1976 incident in Italy and made hundreds of people sick
In the worst affected area, TCDD concentrations in the soil were between 100 and five micrograms per square meter. As for the long-term effects, a 2001 study on the Seveso victims confirmed that TCDD is carcinogenic to humans through its cardiovascular- and endocrine-related effects, Milićević recalls. It was confirmed by another study in 2009.
In addition to adverse health effects, there were many economic and social consequences of the Seveso disaster. To clean the site, the top layer of soil – 40 centimeters – had to be removed. The cleaning cost millions. The accident damaged reputation town’s reputation. Agricultural product sales declined, and so did and the value of land and houses.
The picture shows how the affected area looks today, in August 2021. The area seems to still be undeveloped and unused.
Seveso became a synonym of a chemical disaster, but it was discretely pushed under the rug, particularly after Chernobyl and it was about to be forgotten, Milićević said. But the EU named three directives after it. They regulate accidents involving dangerous substances.