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Burning of demolition waste poses health risks

Burning of demolition waste poses health risks

June 12, 2014

A University of Canterbury environmental chemist has appealed to building contractors and homeowners to stop burning building materials rather than disposing of them safely.

The burning of building materials is a dangerous practice that can make people sick. Building materials from demolishing or renovating earthquake-damaged houses must not be burnt as materials can release a range of toxic substances including lead and arsenic, Dr Sally Gaw says.

“Lead is a neurotoxin and young children are particularly at risk if timber painted with lead-based paint is burnt. Houses built in New Zealand before 1980 would have been painted with lead-based paints.

“Inhaling arsenic can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea and increases the chance of lung cancer developing. A mixture containing copper, chromium and arsenic (CCA) is used to treat timber that is likely to be exposed to moisture or placed in the ground.

“CCA treated timber is used for decks, fences and external structures while other treatments such as boron or light organic solvents may be used for house framing and cladding. Increased air concentrations of arsenic have been measured in New Zealand towns and cities over winter indicating that people are burning treated timber despite the activity being a significant health hazard.

“The burning of treated and painted timber and other demolition waste including plastics is illegal under the regional rules for air quality and people can be prosecuted. This includes both outdoor burning and domestic wood burners.

“The burning of plastics and especially plastic-coated wire can produce dioxins. The burning of plastic coated wiring has been banned in New Zealand under the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality introduced in 2004.

“The toxic substances released by burning building waste are inhaled by people working or living nearby exposing them to significant health hazards. Ash from burning waste building materials will be contaminated and must not be disposed of in gardens as it will contaminate the soil. Children and pets could be poisoned if they were to eat ash left over from burning building materials as toxic substances can be concentrated in ash.

“People who need to dispose of building waste should consider the health and safety of people living and working around them. Given the scale of the rebuild and the number of houses being repaired in Christchurch it is important that building materials are disposed of safely to prevent communities from being unnecessarily exposed to airborne toxic substances.

“The types of building materials that must not be burnt include plastics, PVC weatherboards and pipes, Formica, particle board and treated, painted or coated timbers,” Dr Gaw says.


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