Riverton Smoke Signals: Riverton Smoke 101

Yesterday Jamaica’s Ministry of Health released a statement about tests on last week’s Riverton Smoke.  The most important bit is: “there were high levels of hazardous substances including benzene.”  OK.  But what does that mean? What are the other hazardous substances? What does “high levels” mean? Wait, wait, wait: WHAT is in this smoke?

The Government of Jamaica has not released the full details of the air quality tests nor has it released information on what Kingston and St. Andrew’s air quality is normally like. That matters a lot.  But I will address the continued failure to communicate and to act in the public’s best interest at another time.  Right now the pressing issues remain: putting this fire out (it still burns, it still smokes) and protecting yourself from the smoke (there is seriously bad stuff in it).  High levels of benzene in the air is a scary thing to read but it’s not just benzene.  This is not just any old fire and the smoke is not something to take lightly.

So, below is Riverton Smoke 101.  There is a lot of information here but I feel it’s necessary to give clear and full information; take your time and read it through.  For easier reading the post is divided into sections that you can jump ahead to what you most need or want to know: Section 1: About Riverton; Section 2: What’s at the Dump?; Section 3: What’s in the Smoke?; and, most importantly; Section 4: Protecting Yourself NOW.

Section 1: About Riverton

What is Riverton Dump?

The Riverton Dump is 294 acre property in St. Andrew along the south western border with St. Catherine.  It is the main area for Jamaican’s waste.  It is near a river and in the Riverton Watershed.  Riverton has been used as a dump for at least 25 years.

Which agency or organization operates Riverton Dump?

Riverton Dump is operated by the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA).  It is allowed to operate the Dump under a permit from the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) (after years of allowing it to operate illegally).  Specifically, the NEPA permit allows NSWMA to have hazardous materials at Riverton.

Riverton City Dump, St. Andrew, Jamaica (Image: Jamaica Observer, March 7, 2012)

Wait, why do you keep calling it a “dump” Isn’t Riverton is a landfill? That’s what people have been saying on the news. 

Riverton IS NOT A LANDFILL. Riverton is a DUMP.  D-U-M-P.  

Well, so what if it’s not a landfill.  The garbage is THERE not anywhere else.  Why does it matter anyway?

There is a BIG different between a dump and a landfill.  One resource puts it like this: “a dump is a hole in the ground with trash simply piled into it” while a landfill is a “sophisticated, engineered construction project” that uses “science” and engineering” to “prevent pollution.”

In some countries dumps are illegal and landfills are required + closely monitored.  A landfill is a carefully managed area for waste disposal.  The ground where a landfill is is usually lined to prevent the harmful things from our waste from getting into our soil and water.  The waste in a landfill is also routinely sorted to remove hazardous things or to keep certain things away from each other, and the waste is routinely compacted to make the best use of the space.  Also certain waste cannot and should not be put into a landfill because the waste is too dangerous.  Instead certain waste – like medical waste, things with asbestos, our old electronics – should be disposed of in a special and careful way.  Repeat: Landfill waste is managed.  The ground at a dump is not lined and sorting is not as strict.  Often things that should not be disposed of in a dump end up in a dump because access to a dump is usually not properly controlled, and for a place like Riverton that is unsecured, illegal dumping happens. 

This distinction between a dump and a landfill is very, very important because what is allowed at the Riverton Dump directly affect what it is burning and what is burning directly affects what is in the smoke from the Riverton fire.

Section 2: What’s at the Dump?

Plastic bottles piled up at the Riverton City Dump, St. Andrew, Jamaica. (Image: Jamaica Observer, February 2012)

OK OK so it’s a DUMP, I get it.  So what’s dumped there?

Everything is dumped a Riverton Dump.  There is household and industrial solid waste at Riverton; hazardous and non-hazardous waste is at Riverton. 

According to the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) in 2007 and based on the permit that NEPA issued for the NSWMA  to operate Riverton Dump the following kinds of hazardous materials can be deposited and are probably located at Riverton Dump:

  • Electronic or e-waste  – This is the 21st century; e-waste is everywhere and is produced rapidly.  This is electronic waste like your old cell phones.  Tossed that old Nokia or Motorola to upgrade to an iPhone or Samsung? Got rid of your old laptop or computer? Your old printer? Your old TV? Tossed your ancient VCR or Walkman? Tossed that empty cartridge?  Chances are they all ended up in Riverton Dump.  You know usually I would not quote Wikipedia alone but the opening paragraphs on Electronic Waste bear repeating (I added the bold):

Electronic waste or e-waste describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. Used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling or disposal are also considered as e-waste. Informal processing of electronic waste in developing countries may cause serious health and pollution problems, as these countries have limited regulatory oversight of e-waste processing.

Electronic scrap components, such as CRTs, may contain contaminants such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants. Even in developed countries recycling and disposal of e-waste may involve significant risk to workers and communities and great care must be taken to avoid unsafe exposure in recycling operations and leaking of materials such as heavy metals from landfills and incinerator ashes.

  •  Asbestos – I will not even pretty it up: asbestos is very, very, VERY bad for you.  It is a known carcinogen aka a thing that causes cancer.  Using asbestos is banned in many  countries because it is so harmful.  Manufacturers and other entities that have used asbestos have been sued by people who have developed cancer and other illnesses from the products containing asbestos and those people have received A LOT of money from those lawsuits.  NEPA has allowed NSWMA to “temporarily” bury materials with asbestos at Riverton.  So far no one from the Ministry of Health (MOH), Jamaica Information Service (JIS), NSWMA, NEPA, Jamaica Defense Force (JDF), the Jamaica Fire Brigade (JFB), or the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) has said whether the places at Riverton where asbestos is buried were also on fire. Remember that 60% – 90% of Riverton has been on fire from March 11 until now so it very likely that asbestos-containing materials have been on fire.
  • Condemned Food and Poultry Waste – Basically this includes dead chickens and other birds, all their feathers, and any and all food that has spoilt and is no longer SAFE to eat.
  • Used tires – Recently got brand new tires? Think of all the tires you’ve used over the years.  Think of all the cars in Jamaica.  When those tires wear out, most of them end up at Riverton dump.

Based on a 2012 public consultation report issued by NEPA it very likely that there is illegally dumped medical waste at Riverton.  Medical waste includes used needles, bloody used bandages, bloody used gloves and surgical instruments, removed body organs, and human bodies.

We also know that general household waste – like food scraps, leaves, empty tins, plastic bottles and other containers – are dumped at Riverton Dump.  Jamaicans use a lot of plastic bottles; think about all the bottled water, juice, and soda you’ve drunk…

So altogether the Riverton Dump is home to: e-waste, asbestos-containing materials, condemned food and poultry waste, used tires, medical waste, and regular household waste (including lots of plastic bottles).  As I said before: everything is dumped at Riverton Dump.  This “everything” is important for figuring out what’s in the smoke from the current Riverton Dump fire.

How much of “everything” is at Riverton?

A good estimate is that 60% of Jamaica’s waste is at Riverton Dump.

Section 3: What’s in the Riverton Smoke?

The Riverton City Dump burns in March 2015 (Image Jamaica Observer)

What exactly has been burning at Riverton since March 11, 2015?

I do not know.  None of the government agencies involved has stated clearly what is currently burning at Riverton Dump.

So how do we know what’s in the smoke from the fire?

We do not know exactly what is in the smoke from the fire.  The MOH sent off air samples for testing.  We only about the samples taken from March 13 – 15, 2015.  According to tests on those samples there are “high levels of hazardous substances including benzene.”  The MOH has not released the actual reports showing the levels of all the substances in the air or told the public with the other hazardous substances are.


Based on what we know is at or is allowed to be at Riverton Dump and because we know illegal dumping happebs at Riverton, I can give you a hood idea what is most likely in the smoke.  There is a lot of credible and reliable information about the components of smoke (particulates) from a fire at a garbage dump or just burning garbage:

  • Carbon Monoxide Just about any burning thing can produce carbon monoxide.  It is “mono” because it has one bit of oxygen that is usually formed when there isn’t enough room to burn.  Carbon Monoxide is usually formed in an enclosed space (like a car engine)…or a fire beneath tons and tons of garbage.  It’s the stuff that comes out of a car muffler or from the smoke from your coal stove.  Notice how you choke or your eyes water if you stand too close to the muffler for too long? A fire the size of Riverton is produces A LOT of carbon monoxide.  It is so harmful that being in a closed room that is being filled with carbon monoxide can kill you in a matter of minutes.  It’s so serious that many countries  require homes and certain other buildings to have carbon monoxide detectors.  Basically carbon monoxide is dangerous for you because it takes up the space in your lungs that oxygen wants.  By taking up that space it reduces the amount of oxygen getting to your heart and brain so soon you’re unconscious.  Or, if you’re out in the open breathing in air full of a lot of carbon monoxide you will find that your body has to work harder to get the oxygen it needs: you breathe heavier.  Carbon monoxide is odorless.
  • Dioxins – These are substances with two bits of oxygen in it.  They come from things that have chlorine in them, like bleach or PVC pipes, but many household materials have a little bit of chlorine in them from the manufacturing process.  The problem with dioxins is that they settle on plants…animals like cows, pigs, and goats whose bodies store the dioxins.  So in addition to breathing these things in while Riverton Dump is burning, we’ll be eating them too because they are contaminating the plants we eat.  So from plant –> animals –> humans, dioxins accumulate in our environment so that by the time we eat the animals or maybe some plants contaminated with them, we get a lot of it into our bodies + dioxins are persistent (like when pickney ah ticks innah yuh skin) substances so they stick around in the environment for a long time.  Because dioxins “can alter the fundamental growth and development of cells in ways that have the potential to lead to many kinds of impacts” they affect life at the most basic levels: reproduction (our ability to create life), immunity (our ability to protect ourselves), and hormones (our ability regulate our bodies).  Dioxins are odorless.
  • Particle Matter (PM) & PAHs (hydrocarbons)  PM is made up of tiny tiny particles released into the air as part

    Diagram showing how small PM is. PM is really really small. (Image: http://www.hcdoes.org)

    of smoke when things are burnt in the open.  PAHs or hydrocarbons are a component of PM.  Because PM is so small it gets into the lungs easily by sneaking by the fine hairs in your nose that usual detect these things and get them out of your body (aka sneezing)…then the PM snuggle down into your lungs and get into your bloodstream.  Once in the lungs and in the blood stream they get to work doing everything from aggravating asthma to making your lungs work harder but less efficiently to coughing and just plain ol’ difficulty breathing.  The longer you’re exposed to PM the more bothered your respiratory system is.

  • Ash  We all know what ash looks like.  Ash from burning garbage is one big mix up though, full of toxic heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, and lead that cause problems if ingested. Ash is bigger than PM but we still can inhale it and it affects our ability to breathe. 
  • Sulfur Dioxide: This is different from the dioxins I mentioned above (because it’s made up differently) but it is just as harmful.  It is colourless and has a sharp odor like the kind you smell when you steike a match.  Burning plastic — like all those plastic bottles — releases sulfur dioxide, which can join with other chemicals to form the tiny particles that make up PM.  If someone inhales high levels of sulfur dioxide it can irritate the nose and throat and put so much stress on the lungs that fluid builds up in the lungs.  Sulfur dioxide can also cause wheezing, shortness of breath, and skin + eye irritation.

From last year’s fire at Riverton City Dump, St. Andrew, Jamaica (Image: Jamaica Observer, March 2014)


Within a few minutes or hours, breathing in a lot of benzene can cause: drowsiness, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, headaches, tremors (your hands and legs shake like a leaf), confusion, and unconsciousness.  If you eat food contaminated with benzene you may: vomit, have stomach irritation (like pains, diarrhea), become dizzy or sleepy, have convulsions (sudden, uncontrolable movements by your arm, leg, or entire bosy), or have a rapid or irregular heartbeat.  Breathing in high levels of benzene or eating something with very high levels of benzene can kill you.  Long-term exposure to benzene mostly affects the blood by causing a decrease in the number of red blood cells; red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen around the body.  Some studies also show that even low level but long term exposure to benzene can cause harm to the liver or kidney, and even to an unborn baby.  It is likely that benzene causes cancer.

    • Styrene: Styrene is used to produce plastics.  Exposure to high levels of styrene can cause eye irritation and stomach or intestinal trouble.  Long-term exposure affects your nervous system causing headaches, depression, and fatigue, or even hearing loss.  Some studies suggest a link between leukemia and lymphoma, two cancers that affect the blood and the body’s immune system.
    • Phenols:  Phenols are used in a variety things: to make nylon, to make sore throat lozenges, and to make disinfectant and antiseptic.  Acceptable levels are used in these manufacturing processes.  Too much phenol can irritate your skin and affect your blood, specifically the ability of your red blood cells to reproduce and replenish.
    • Butadiene: This gas is always in car exhaust (your muffler again) but, again, a lot more of it is produced from burning tires.  Being exposed to it for just a short time can affect your nasal passages (aka may make your nose tickle, may make your sneeze) or make your eyes water or itch, but long term exposure has been linked to cardiovascular (heart and blood circulation) issues and leukemia (a cancer affecting the blood).
    • PAHs or hydrocarbons are also produced from tire fires. 

Tires that are on fire are very hard to put out because the tires absorb a lot of water before they stop burning.  Also “the doughnut-shaped tire casings allow air drafts to stoke the fire.” Therefore, burning tires burn for a long time and release a lot of these harmful gases, oils, and heavy metals into the air. 

 Section 4: Protecting Yourself NOW

Is this smoke toxic?  Why?

Yes.  Toxic means “containing poisonous substances.”  Poisonous means “causing sickness or death by entering or touching the body” and “very harmful or unpleasant.”  The Riverton Smoke most likely contains a mix of all of the things I just mentioned above: carbon monoxide, dioxins, PMs and PAHs, benzene, styrene, phenols, butadiene, and, sulfur dioxide, and ash.  It’s a mix of some of the most harmful things known to scientists.  Too much of each substance on its own is not good for the body.  Together these things in the Riverton Smoke put the body, especially the respiratory and blood circulation system, under a lot of stress because they force your body to work harder to be able to function properly.  They cause harm or sickness to the body because your body has to work hard to get rid of them. 

This mix of substances is capable of causing sickness or death by touching and entering the body and each is harmful or unpleasant.  Riverton Smoke contains these substances. Riverton Smoke is toxic.

But I don’t live that close & my exposure was really for only a few days, I can’t be that exposed right?

Yes, you can be.  Riverton Smoke is being carried far distances by the wind.  Even if you don’t live close by or don’t smell the smoke all the time or at all, you may have been exposed.  Remember a lot of the substances in the smoke are odorless or colourless so you may not see or snell the smoke but it can be right by you.  Remember also that we do not know the exact levels of each of these substances, only that the levels are “very high.”    That is serious enough for you to act as if you have been exposed and to protect yourself.  After almost 14 days of even mild exposure your health is at risk.  Remember also that some of these substances get into our food system (including our water) so while you may not be as close as say Seaview Gardens or Portmore, you may still be exposed to the effects of the Riverton fire. 

I only had to pass it on the way to work and back home & when I drove by my windows were up & my a/c on. So I must have been safe?

No.  You may not have been safe.  Take for example the PM: they are small.  Your car is not airtight even when the A/C is set to “internal circulate.”  Therefore, it is very possible that some of the PM or some other gas or airborne particles got into your car.  Again, because these substances in the smoke can and do travel far and can and do land on plants or on animals, your food is very likely affected. Do not assume that you are safe just because your exposure was for a limited time because we do not yet know HOW MUCH toxins are in the smoke. 

Smoke only got into my office building for a day or so, not a big deal right?

It depends.  Which substances are in the smoke? We do not yet know for sure.  What are the levels of the substances in the smoke?  We do not know at all.  Err on the side of caution.  Remember that substances like benzene and dioxins are persistent: they take a long time to dissipate from the air; they like to stick around and you cannot smell them.  Some of the substances (likely) in the Riverton Smoke are odorless.  PM are tiny tiny (microscopic).  A day or so exposure may be enough to cause an impact on your health.  And, of course, remember the impact on our food.

I worked at the toll plaza & my employers gave me dust masks to protect me from the smoke. Was that good enough?

No.  Dust masks do not protect against smoke.  They are dust masks so they protect against dust.  To protect against smoke (like from a wildfire or a dump fire), it is recommended that if you must be outside, you use a damp cloth (like a kerchief) tied over your nose and mouth or a special kind of mask or respirator.  Also, masks do not prevent the substances in the smoke from getting into your hair or eyes or touching your skin; some of the substances (likely) in Riverton Smoke cause eye and skin irritation. 

What about the fancy N95 masks?

They offer some protections but be careful.  These masks (proper name: N95 respirator) are supposed to protect you from inhaling PM.  However, the US Food and Drug Administration (which approves the sale and marketing of these masks in the US) has very clear cautions for the public when using this mask.  Specifically, N95 respirators must fit closely to your face and they are not made for children or people with facial hair.  Additionally, “ALL FDA-cleared N95 respirators are labeled as “single use”, disposable devices” so you’ll need to use a fresh one each time.

So how am I supposed to protect myself?

Get out of the immediate area or if you cannot, stay inside with your windows and doors closed.  Try to figure out when the smoke is not as heavy in your community and open the windows then.  But even then, be careful because some of the substances (likely) in the Riverton Smoke persist, remember? Otherwise, limit your outdoor activity and once you’re home from outside, change your clothes immediately (smoke clings to your clothing).

Keep hydrated because it helps to thin any mucus that may be building up in your lungs.  Being hydrated will help your lungs do the extra work needed to clean the toxins from your body.

Bottom line: do not expose yourself unnecessarily.

If you feel sick, go to the hospital, doctor, or clinic immediately.

What symptoms should I look out for?

Generally, I think it’s sensible to look out for the symptoms of smoke inhalation: coughing, shortness of breath, dizziness, hoarseness or noisy breathing, eye or skin irritation or discolouration (aka yoir skin changes colour), headache, or “changes in mental status”  like confusion, fainting, or seizures.  If things get really bad like:

  • Hoarse voice
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drawn out coughing spells
  • Mental confusion


Not only may you be having smoke inhalation symptoms but your body is probably also dealing with the effects of the toxins in the smoke. 

What about my children?

Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of the Riverton Smoke because they are small, because of how they breathe, and because their bodies are still developing.  Small bodies absorb things differently, usually more rapidly, and feel the effects of toxic smoke more quickly: they breathe in faster and they often breathe through their mouths, which means that they are bypassing the nose’s filtration system.  Inhaling a lot of harmful air at early stages of is development can cause trouble for the healthy development of important body systems (like the respriatory and endocrine or hormone regulation system).  Children will likely feel the effects worse than you (the adult) will.  Pay attention to their activity level because changes like fatigue, drowsiness, or sleepiness (all of which are caused by some of the substances (likely) in the smoke AND smoke generally), and pay attention to spot any breathing changes.  Monitor them for headaches or any skin or eye irritation.  If there is eye irritation, wash their eyes out with cool water and contact your doctor.  Pay attention to persistent coughs or a sore throat.  

Bottom line: go to the doctor, hospital, or clinic if you are concerned about anything your child is experiencing.  Their bodies may need help from medication to manage the smoke toxins or to breathe easier.

The closest symptoms I can find are dealing with wildfire smoke inhalation from Children’s Hospital in Denver, Colorado

  • Decreased activity level
  • Increased coughing
  • Wheezing and/or audible breathing sounds
  • Change in color or pallor of skin
  • Easily fatigued
  • Breathing hard

and they are consistent with what I came up with above.

I am pregnant, am I at higher risk?

Probably.  An unborn baby has a harder time filtering out harmful substances because its entire world is its mother’s womb.  Dioxins in particular cause harm to the reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems, systems under a lot of strain during pregnancy.  Keep in close contact with your obstetrician or family doctor.  Pay attention to how you’re feeling.  Pregnancy creates a lot of changes in the body so it may be difficult to figure out if it’s pregnancy or Riverton Smoke that’s causing an issue (like sleepiness).  Nevertheless, it is a good idea to stay indoors as much as possible and to keep the windows and doors closed.  Limit your exposure. Be alert. Drink lots of water. 

Who else is at higher risk for illness from the Riverton Smoke?

Along with children and pregnant women, the elderly and people who already have respiratory trouble are at high risk for illness from the Riverton Smoke.  While children’s small bodies soak things up too quickly, an elderly person because of deterioration of the body because of age has a harder time dealing with all the toxins entering to the body.  Check in on your elderly neighbours, parents, and grandparents often.  Ensure that they are drinking enough water and are staying indoors as much as possible.  If they have trouble breathing or complain for dizziness they should probably get medical attention as soon as possible.  Dizziness is a big problem for elderly people because they are usually already unsteady (just age); dizziness just makes that unsteadyness worse so they are more likely to fall, which can cause serious harm.

People with asthma or who have recently recovered from something like bronchitis or pneumonia should be extra careful.  Pay attention to your breathing, whether you’re coughing a lot, whether your chest feels tight.  Asthmatics should be sure to have their inhalers and other medication handy at all times, and should probably decrease their physical activity (like that evening run) because their lungs are already working hard (because of the smoke) and are compromised (the asthma).

What about people with high blood pressure or diabetes or circulation?  What about folks with chikungunya or who had it?

Well my best guess is that because some of the substances (likely) in Riverton Smoke cause trouble for the cardiovascular system (blood circulation) and blood itself, people with high blood pressure are at high risk for complications caused by the Riverton Smoke.  I’d say the same for folks with other heart  or circulation troubles.  These toxins, generally, affect your body’s ability to deliver oxygen.  Your body is already working harder to deliver  oxygen-containing blood because of high blood pressure or heart trouble so it is reasonable to conclude that you should be extra careful about the effects of Riverton Smoke. 

As for chikungunya, so little is known about the disease and bcause the recovery time can be long that caution should be your first action; it should be your default.  What we do know about chikungunya is that it affects blood circulation to the point if extreme pain and fatigue.  If at least some of the substances in the Riverton Smoke also affect these same systems, I think it is best for folks who have chikungunya or who are still recovering from it (aka everyone in Jamaica who’s had it) to watch for any recurrence of joint pain or fatigue. Be careful with the pain medication often prescribedfor  chikungunya because for some people those medications also cause breathing btrouble. 

Can I just take over-the-counter (OTC) medication, like I would for allergies?

No.  These OTC medications won’t help with exposure to smoke unless you are having breathing trouble in which case GO TO THE DOCTOR, HOSPITAL, OR CLINIC because you’ll likely need something stronger than OTC medicine.  Or at least you need to be checked and monitored. At the very least talk to a pharmacist.


Editor’s Notes:

  1. I got a lot of help with the building blocks for this post.  Many thanks to my tweeps @MizDurie for really excellent and thorough research help and @deikamorrison for suggesting good resources and direction for the post, and to @suezeecue and @jahmekyagyal for questions to address + for uploading and sharing that NEPA permit.
  2. I know public health and I know biology.  I know science.  I understand how things work in and on the body.  I have read a lot of information about smoke and landfill fires and the like to write this post.  But I am not a doctor or trained scientist so nothing in this post should be taken as medical advice; if you feel sick GO TO THE DOCTOR.  Use this information to help you figure things out or to ask your doctor questions, but get competent help and an actual diagnosis and medication from a doctor.
  3. I will be updating this post with specific  information, as is necessary, about burning e-waste as well as general household waste (which is usually “organic” and “compostable”). 
2 Responses to “Riverton Smoke Signals: Riverton Smoke 101”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] left to enterprising bloggers and social media folks to fill in the gaps with questions. Here is a wonderful blog on the Riverton fire. It provides essential information that the government should have had on hand, […]

  2. […] 2 weeks the fire was put out and there’s been rain though of what kind we do not know — but I confess I do worry about what lingers so please, do be careful not to breathe too deeply.  As I’m sure you can understand, a burning dump releases all manner of substances into the […]

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