Waste recycling fires – measuring the impact

Published:  09 September, 2014

The issue of fires breaking out at waste recycling sites remains one that continues to challenge the Emergency Services and the Environmental Agencies, both in prevention and in tackling them, writes Bill Atkinson, Bureau Veritas, UK.

Whilst the causes of these fires can be the cause of some supposition and controversy, what isn’t contested is the shockingly high frequency and severity with which they break out. Between 2012-2013 there were 600 fire-related incidents at waste recycling and storage sites, of which all but 5 were at privately operated sites.  The discrepancy between the public and private figures can in part be explained by the far greater numbers of privately operated sites (over 10,000) compared to local authority operated sites.  However the rate of fires is much higher in private sites, with a fire at one in 18 facilities over that period compared to one in every 110 local authority run sites. Why should this be? Again, it is easy to speculate but commercial pressures can certainly add to the temptation to have large quantities of materials stacked densely into every available square metre of the footprint of the site. Not only will this increase the likelihood of a fire occurring, but once fire does break out then tackling the fire becomes much more onerous and lengthy, exposing responders and neighbours of the sites alike for potentially a lengthy window of exposure. The questions are, what are the potential causes of the risks and how real are they? 

Air pollution

It is the densely packed conditions in which waste is stacked that lead to the problems of slow, persistent and incomplete burning of materials. These conditions of incomplete combustion can result in a cocktail of chemical species and compounds being formed. These include:

  • Carbon monoxide
  • Hydrogen cyanide
  • Hydrogen sulfide
  • Unburnt hydrocarbons
  • Ammonia
  • Acid gases (eg HCl, NOx, SOx)
  • Halogenated hydrocarbons
  • Poly aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)
  • Carbon particulates measured by size (typically PM10 and below)

Extended periods of exposure to carbon monoxide around the Short-Term Exposure Limit (STEL) of 200ppm (parts per million), particularly without interruption, raise concerns for adverse health effects, and should be avoided. Carbon monoxide is a product of incomplete combustion and exposure to high levels (1,700ppm) can prove fatal.

Hydrogen cyanide may be released during combustion of plastics including polyurethane. Exposure to relatively low levels (50ppm) can prove fatal.

Hydrogen sulfide is typically associated with bacterial decomposition of organic materials and may be encountered in waste streams and industrial effluents. Exposure to high levels (100ppm) can prove fatal.

Hydrogen chloride may be released during combustion of plastics including polyvinyl chloride (PVC) with exposure to relatively low levels (43ppm over 30 minutes) causing disabling effects.

Ammonia is typically associated with cleaning products and industrial refrigerants, it may be encountered in waste streams and industrial effluents, exposure to high levels (3000ppm) can prove fatal, exposure to much lower levels (250ppm) can incapacitate.

Smoke from whatever source poses a risk when inhaled, but the Public Health England advice is that while the larger particles are obvious when deposited on cars, washing and the outside environment, they pose only a minimal risk. It is the much smaller particles (PM10 and below as defined by their diameter in micrometres) which are not visible to the naked eye that can be inhaled and taken deep into the lungs, which may cause problems particularly to susceptible individuals. People at most risk would be those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or pre-existing cardiac conditions such as angina. This is because the particulate matter contained in the smoke acts as an irritant. If enough smoke is inhaled, this can cause a sensation of tightness of the chest, difficulty with breathing, or coughing.

The UK has set national Air Quality Objectives, following European Directives, that cover common air pollutants including particulates (PM10 and PM2.5), carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, benzene and 1,3 butadiene. The objective for PM10 particulates is for the limit of 50μg/m3 (measured as a 24hour mean) not to be exceeded more than 35 times per year.

To assess the risks to the public during incidents like this, the National Air Quality Technical Advisor (NAQTA) will mobilise the Air Quality Cell (AQC) to undertake air quality monitoring to assess the risk to the general public.  This is especially important when fires are located close to residential areas or areas of high public amenity (eg schools).  A fire broke out on 21st August at Averies Recycling in Marshgate, Swindon – a built up area less than 100 metres from residents – despite the operator previously being fined and warned as to the risks of fire breaking out.

The fire involved over 1,000 tonnes of densely packed waste plastic, wood and other materials. The team from Bureau Veritas, operating as part of the AQC, began monitoring early the next morning for 2 days. It was clear that the weather conditions, particularly overnight on the 22nd August, led to elevated levels of particulates which were for brief periods detected at levels which were well above the air quality guideline levels. The fire continued to burn (and at the time of writing is likely to burn for some weeks) prompting a second call-out of the AQC on 27th August. By this time, sufficient waste had been removed from the site so that intense fire fighting operations could begin. It was these operations and the concerns for the welfare of the responding crew that prompted Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service to call in a separate monitoring team from Bureau Veritas to conduct air sampling to assess the potential exposure of the responders, both from walk-round surveys and at static sites including where the crews were based.

The results from the monitoring carried out indicated carbon monoxide levels that did briefly exceed the Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL) of 30ppm during the walk-round survey but the concentrations of other toxic gases (hydrogen cyanide, chlorine, hydrogen sulfide) were below detectable concentrations at all locations (less than 0.1ppm). The concentrations of particulates showed a significant variation at each of the sampling locations due to changes in wind speed and direction (something I can personally vouch for!). The levels recorded were more consistently above the WEL with occasional but fleetingly higher levels recorded.

An earlier incident occurred during the night of the 20th August 2013 at around 9pm, when a large fire broke out on the site of Junction 25 Recycling, a waste recovery facility situated close to Junction 25 on the M60 at Bredbury, Stockport. This resulted in a smoke plume depositing ash and soot over the surrounding areas. A Bureau Veritas monitoring team was requested by Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service to attend and monitor the area affected by the plume. The majority of the fire was extinguished relatively quickly but the tightly compacted bales of waste had to be individually broken up and damped down, a process that took at least two weeks.

Monitoring was set up for both chemical species and carbon particulates. While the chemical gases results again showed levels that did not exceed STEL, the total inhalable particulate concentration was above the Air Quality Guideline Level for PM10 of 50μg/m3 at all monitoring points apart from the Incident Command Unit. At these levels, protective measures such as the use of correct filter masks would need to be put in place.

Run-off water

The environmental risks generated by liquid leaking from the waste and the impact of water run-off has to be factored into the fire fighting plans, adding further complexity and delays in initial fire-fighting operations.  However the damaged caused can still be severe and long-lasting.

A fire at Arcwood Recycling in Low’s Lane, Stanton-by-Dale, Derbyshire in 2013 resulted in the prosecution of the site operators who were deemed to have put people “at risk of death or serious injury”. The fire broke out in a pile of 8,000 tonnes of wood stored at the plant, which was stored too close to a gas supply. Extinguishing it took two months, costing over £300,000 and resulting in the death of thousands of fish, even after  7 tons were moved for their protection, and damaged 6km of river.

Summary

In conclusion, prevention rather than cure definitely remains the best strategy in relation to waste recycling site fires. There is evidence that there are potential health impacts to crews responding to fires from breathing air pollution of particulates but little or no evidence of exposure to high levels of chemical species.  Particulates monitoring looks to be needed not just because of the levels being measured but crucially because of the length of time exposure can occur, something that sets waste recycling fires apart from more ‘normal’ fires.

The air pollution risk is also of concern for the vulnerable population, especially if they have little choice in moving away from a fire. Given the possible risks, fire services also have a duty of care to their employees, so the case for air monitoring will remain, especially for the long and complicated incidents (which seems to be most of them) along with control measures to limit exposure (eg. PPE). The environmental impact of these fires is also clear. Mine is not the first voice to say Something Must Be Done to put measures in place to both prevent these fires from breaking out and stop them being so difficult to tackle, but I would hope I might prove to be one of the last.

Sources

  • Letsrecycle.com news, 10th April 2014 “Rogerson outlines scale of fires in waste sector”.
  • Containment News, Business Synergies, August 2014 mailout.
  • Bureau Veritas monitoring reports.

All pictures taken by Bureau Veritas. All rights reserved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bill Atkinson is Technical Director in the Fire Science and Chemicals Management group of Bureau Veritas, delivering hazmat training, emergency response services and air quality monitoring.  He is also a retained scientific advisor to West Midlands Fire Service in the UK.

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