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Saturday 20 April 2019
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Poisoning our air


MUCH OF the country was shrouded in an impenetrable haze of Sahara dust for the better part of last week. Definitely not fun times for people with respiratory problems like asthma or emphysema. A radio DJ read an advisory suggesting that members of the public who could avoid going outdoors should do so.

It’s hard to say what people did with that information. Perhaps citizens accustomed to exercising al fresco could have just skipped their routines for the week at least. As for commuters, people who work outside and the outdoorsy indigent types they were simply out of luck.

There hasn’t been nearly as much chatter about the perpetual haze generated by all-day, every-day fires across this country. These blazes contribute to the shockingly dreadful air quality. I’ve suffered terribly with hay fever triggered by the Sahara dust but compounded considerably by smoke from intentionally lit fires. These illness-inducing fires are deliberately ignited both in my community and beyond.

One afternoon I visited Mount St Benedict to get some fresh air. The view of the Caroni Plain from on high was one of a post-apocalyptic landscape. There were countless plumes of smoke feeding the hazy horizon stretching as far south as the eye could see – and limited visibility would permit. It has gotten to the stage where we now need to step indoors for a breath of fresh air. For those of you stricken with respiratory challenges, I feel your agony.

Hay fever, while less concerning than, say, asthma, is no picnic either. Constant wheezing, sneezing and a runny nose are accompanied by a low-grade fever and an all-round crappy feeling. This condition also limits your ability to function and think clearly.

My workweek became as much a haze as was the Northern Range. Normally the allergy medication Allegra D can easily beat back the symptoms of hay fever. This time around, however, after eating those tablets like Tic Tacs with little relief, I got to wondering if there was an Allegra X on the market.

There is a semi-abandoned road in the area where I live. It’s used regularly by people who dump and burn rubbish. This includes anything from tyres to plastic containers and old furniture. The resulting black billowing plumes of smoke are filled with a cocktail of toxins about which Trinis are either ignorant or unconcerned. Additionally, farmers in the area routinely clear their land with fire and burn cuttings…every single afternoon.

The recently deceased Keith Flint (God rest his gifted soul) of the UK rave band the Prodigy claimed to have been the Firestarter. But Flint was exaggerating. The real firestarter is a wiry, perpetually barebacked firebug in my area who is always armed with a bottle of petrol. For four days straight last week, he burned land next to my building in full view of everyone. This is the Trini way; loud, lawless, ignorant and inconsiderate are our national watchwords.

Recently, Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat announced an increase in the fines for igniting an outdoor fire without a permit from $1,500 to $20,000.

This minister of low hanging fruit heralded the measure as a sign of Government’s seriousness in tackling the environmental devastation of forest fires. These permits, according to the ministry, must be obtained from the nearest fire station. That must mean, then, that fire stations are doing a roaring trade in fire permits given the frequency of conflagrations in my community alone.

Additionally, the conditions governing these permits, such as not burning in hot, dry and windy periods, are a joke. The dry season is a hot, dry, windy period. This is why flying kites and also burning fires are very popular around this time of year.

Recipients of these “permits” are also required to have water readily available to extinguish flames and they are advised to only burn small amounts. Who is standing by to enforce the conditions set out in the permitting system? No one, that’s who.

It’s easy for the minister to make a grandiose statement which postures at tackling a vexing problem contributing in no small measure to air pollution. As is the case with most ministers, however, the threat of increased fines is all smoke no fire.

Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens are left to suffer and face the real threat of long-term health consequences owing to wanton pollution of the air we breathe.

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