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Phnom Penh smothered in smelly, dangerous haze as landfill fire continues burning

A large plume of smoke rises from the Dangkao landfill in Phnom Penh's Dangkao district on Friday.
A large plume of smoke rises from the Dangkao landfill in Phnom Penh's Dangkao district on Friday. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Phnom Penh smothered in smelly, dangerous haze as landfill fire continues burning

A putrid haze that has bedeviled Phnom Penh since Monday night will likely continue as a landfill in Dangkao district continued to burn on Friday, creating health risks for the capital's residents.

Workers at the Dangkao landfill on site on Friday attributed the fire, which continued to produce a thick cloud of smoke, to hot weather and a buildup of gases caused by the decomposing rubbish.

“It’s from the gases inside [the landfill] and the hot weather. It’s like this for a few days,” said one landfill worker who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Though unaware of the fire before being contacted by The Post, Ministry of Health spokesman Ly Sovann warned of the public health risk it posed. He advised people to avoid the fire, wear masks, and immediately go to a local health centre or hospital if they experience severe coughing or difficulty breathing.

“Authorities should stop the fire of [the] landfill that could [have an] effect to air quality and affect human health,” he said.

Municipal governor Khoung Sreng said that up to 30 fire trucks - nearly the entire municipality's force - had been sent to the dumpsite, but he also minimised the scope of the fire, saying that just “a little” smoke continued to rise from the landfill.

“However it has little smoke because the mountains of garbage are piled up,” he said.

Sreng confirmed the blaze was caused by a methane buildup from the decomposing trash and said the continued deliveries of garbage were not being deposited where the fire still burns.

On Friday, Cintri garbage trucks continued to roll in and out of the landfill. Seng Sorida, a representative of Cintri, said the company has no responsibility for the landfill as it belonged to the municipality, and declined to comment further.

“Cintri trucks still go in and out to fill garbage and it’s okay to fill [it] in [the landfill],” she said before declining further comment.

According to a 2002 report by the United States Fire Administration, landfill fires pose considerable health risks. The smoke contains fine particles “which can aggravate preexisting pulmonary [lung] conditions or cause respiratory distress.”

The Ministry of Environment’s Office of Air Quality sensor, located atop the ministry building, has measured an average PM2.5 particle concentration of 28.01 micrograms per cubic meter so far for the month of March, lower than February’s average of 37.27 – when wildfires peaked throughout the country - but still higher than the World Health Organization’s guidelines recommended level of 25 micrograms per cubic metre or less.

Toxic smoke and gases are also a risk from landfill fires, according to the report, which notes that the danger and level of toxicity for humans depends on the length of exposure and the type of material burning. Carbon monoxide from such fires can deprive vital organs of oxygen “which can cause permanent damage or death”.

“Another serious concern in landfill fires is the emission of dioxins…exposure to high levels of dioxins has been linked to cancer, liver damage, skin rashes, and reproductive and developmental disorders,” the report states.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency even a minuscule amount of exposure to dioxins can be linked to human health problems.

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