Garbage - a messy problem

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 16, No. 51            December 28, 2006

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Garbage dumping such as this may cause serious health hazards to children, adults and the environment.

Throughout the world, controlling and properly maintaining garbage is a huge problem. Many countries have developed new rules and regulations to combat the problem, but what is San Pedro Town doing? The San Pedro Sun’s Volume 16 Number 49 issue printed a letter by San Pedro Aficionados who commented on a very bad stretch of beach, one that was being used as a garbage dump. “When we first encountered this area, we thought that the San Pedro Town Council had approved a new garbage dump at the site. Not only have the developers succeeded in acquiring land at the expense of the residents of San Pedro, they have created a cesspool that will continue to leach contaminants and heavy metals into the surrounding environment for years to come. I can’t believe that people will pay a half million dollars to purchase a property built over and near such a hazard. I also can’t believe that the Mayor, Town Councilors and Area Representative are aware of this situation and allow it to continue,” they commented.

    It is a common sight around various areas of the island, open unused lots that are being used as dump sites. Or, landowners using garbage as landfills, which will then be covered by sand and a home constructed on it. Although this problem may not be illegal it is something that is heavily frowned upon. In an interview with Town Administrator Patricia Verde, The Sun discovered that this a health department issue. “The health inspector should contact these owners and let them know that this practice should stop.” However, why is it allowed to continue and why in so many areas around town? As of press time, this reporter was unable to contact Health Inspector Novelo.

    Yes, garbage dumping around town is a sore sight. It looks terribly bad to tourists that visit the island. However, it poses several health hazards to not only those living in the area, but also to all residents of Ambergris Caye and our beautiful, fragile barrier reef.

    Sewage is a mixture of water, human waste, and ground-up garbage, although domestic sewage is about 99.9 per cent liquid and one per cent solid such as soiled diapers. The water and human waste contents come from sinks and toilets of homes (from bathtubs, showers, dishwashers and laundry washers), restaurants, and office buildings. Untreated sewage is host to bacteria responsible for various infectious diseases. Some diseases transmitted by untreated or improperly treated sewage are typhoid, paratyphoid, cholera, dysentery, gastroenteritis and infectious hepatitis (jaundice). Disease-causing bacteria can contaminate drinking water supplies and be transported by flies, rodents and dogs. Improperly disposed-of solid waste, which includes everything from bottles to plastics, appliances, oil drums and aluminum cans, may be a direct source of disease as organic material could pollute surface and ground waters that are used as drinking supplies, as well as spread disease through rats, mice and flies.

    Batteries – coming from typical sources, such as cell phones, pagers, cameras, computers, flashlights, power tools, research equipment, monitoring devices, health monitors, lanterns, burglar alarms, emergency light batteries...and the list goes on – contain poisons such as mercury which can seep through the soil and contaminate the ground water. Keeping batteries away from small children is essential. All batteries are now classified as “hazardous waste.” Batteries have been determined to be unsuitable for disposal as municipal solid waste because they contain toxic heavy metals and have corrosive properties. Batteries are not to be placed in waste baskets or dumpsters where they will end up as municipal trash. Check with the San Pedro Town Council as to how they are collecting such wastes.

    How does this affect the reef? Peter Kaminsky, author, explained in an article entitled Water Pollution that sewage sometime may contain debris due to water runoffs that occur after storms or floods. Although most sewage goes through treatment plants that remove solids and such dissolved substances as the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus and while some do pass through septic tanks before being filtered and seeped into the ground, the remainder goes untreated directly into rivers, lakes, streams or in our case, the clear, azure Caribbean waters.

    Sadly, even treated sewage that is dumped in waterways, also harms coral reefs and their ecosystems. Treated sewage and fertilizers affect the coral reefs because they contain very high levels of nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates. Normal quantities of these nutrients help to support various life forms in the water but at excess levels, nutrients over stimulate the growth of aquatic plants and algae. Soon some of the excess algae die because there are not enough herbivorous fish to eat the extra algae. After algae die, they decay and use up dissolved oxygen (Sue Wells & Nick Hanna 79). The loss of oxygen affects the respiration of fish and bottom-dwelling animals that can not survive when levels of dissolved oxygen drop below two to five parts per million. When this occurs, aquatic organisms die in large numbers, which leads to a decrease in animal and plant diversity and a disruption in the food chain. Once the herbivorous fish that kept harmful algae in check are eliminated, algae will overgrow and smother the coral reefs (Krantz and Kifferstein).

    Another type of pollution that plagues coral reefs and their ecosystems is marine debris. Marine debris, which includes plastics, fishing nets, and many other forms of trash and garbage, pollute oceans in physical, rather than chemical ways. Marine debris can come from many sources, including ships and other sea vessels, divers, offshore oil platforms, and improper disposal of trash on land (Boyce Thorne-Miller & John Catena19).

    Marine debris can affect the coral reef ecosystem in two ways, one killing the coral reefs by continually rubbing against them or smothering them while the other being to harm fish species and other aquatic organisms that use the reef. Marine debris threatens the lives of aquatic organisms by entangling, poisoning, or choking them. This occurs because marine animals mistake floating plastic bags, balloons and other items, which resemble jellyfish, as one of their normal food, sources. When the animals go to feed on the imagined food some may get entangled in the object and die, while others suffocate or become poisoned after trying to digest the debris (Wells & Hanna 88).

    What can you do? Keep garbage in tightly closed containers and make sure they are collected by the town’s sanitation engineers where it is certain that it will go at the proper dump site. When having others collect your garbage make sure that they will dump it properly. Do not dump dirty water out in the soil; instead dump it on your sewer system. Refrain from dumping garbage on the land (do not litter) and especially anywhere close to the sea. For any questions or inquiries make sure to contact your health officer at 226-2536.
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