Fire at Vinca Landfill Has Potential to Cause International Incident – Dioxins and Furans Threatening to Jeopardize the Danube

Source: Balkan Green Energy News Sunday, 15.08.2021. 12:55
Illustration (Photo: kanvag/
An expert for gas from the UNECE and chemical engineer, Branko Milicevic, says that the question is not whether there are dangerous dioxins and furans in the air after the great fire at the Vinca landfill, but how many, considering that their presence is not measured. He warned that the incident could become international.

The Vinca landfill is still smoldering while firemen are trying to put out the fire which broke out last week, and toxic smoke is still covering Belgrade. When such events happen, conditions are created which facilitate the synthesis of dioxins and furans – increased pressure and temperature, the presence of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) PET plastic bottles, aromatic and other polymers, pesticides, salts and other substances rich with chlorine, says Branko Milicevic, the secretary of the Group of Experts on Gas at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

He said that those two families of heterocyclic compounds were dangerous and pointed out the grave consequences of the industrial disaster in Italy from 1976. The question is not whether dioxins and furans have been released, but in which amounts, since their presence is not measured, Milicevic says.

In the meantime, the Chinese Shopping Center in New Belgrade burned down overnight, which increased the concerns over the health risks. The building featured hundreds of stores, restaurants and warehouses full of consumer goods, food products, clothes and tools.

When they are chlorinated – with up to eight chlorine atoms – they are called polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs), Milicevic adds. What’s common to both are three rings and the middle ring, that is, the bridge, with one oxygen atom in furans and two in dioxins.

Dioxin half-life 15 years

Dioxins and furans are chemically stable, long-lasting and toxic, so-called persistent organic pollutants (POPs). As such they are regulated by the Stockholm Convention which aims to limit or remove their production and use. Unlike most other POPs, dioxins and furans are not produced on purpose. They are byproducts of other processes, such as uncontrolled combustion. They are sometimes present as impurities in other chemicals, for example, in Agent Orange.

These two toxic compounds have surely been released due to the fire, Milicevic underlines.

– What worries me is the reaction of various officials, who, it seems, are bargaining with the situation, rejecting the warnings, transferring blame to others and treating all this as a political problem. This is not a political problem, or at least not yet. This is a health and environmental problem. The authorities should realize that POPs remain in the ground for a number of years – dioxins’ half-life is 15 years. We can’t sweep dioxins under the rug and pretend they don’t exist – they will eventually appear and the problem will become even bigger – he said.

According to Milicevic, it is not enough to just measure the concentrations of PM2.5 and PM10 particles in the air. What’s important is the chemical composition of the soot emerging from the landfill and whether it carries dioxins and furans in it, whether on the surface or inside of it. Milicevic emphasizes that he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the concentrations of other POPs are higher too.

The Danube under threat of harmful influence

If the agencies in charge of environmental protection can measure the level of dioxins, furans and other POPs, but have been told not to, it could soon become an international problem, Milicevic claims.

The authorities in Belgrade and Serbia need to determine the scope of the damage as a consequence of the Vinca fire, in line with the Stockholm Convention.

– Here’s how it goes: poor management of landfills and other waste disposal sites can lead to a worsening of the water quality in the Danube and its tributaries. If seepage containing POPs starts leaking out of the landfill into the Danube, the European Union could see fit to speak on behalf of its two member states downstream from Serbia – Romania and Bulgaria. We need to take POPs extremely seriously – on October 29, 2009, the Stockholm Convention came into effect in Serbia and became part of the local legislation, so refusing to act could be treated as a case of criminal negligence – he warns.

The concentrations of dioxins and furans in the ground near the landfill need to be measured as soon as possible and they have to be compared with the values in other spots, notes Milicevic. He adds that the consequences to the environment, the economy and the society could be serious.

Seveso disaster

In July 1976, a chemical reactor in Seveso, a town near Milan, Italy, released six tons of chemicals, which then spread over an area of six by three kilometers. Most were harmless, but it turned out that there was one kilogram of TCDD. In only a few days, over 3,000 animals, mostly poultry and rabbits, died, Milicevic says.

Several thousand domestic animals were slaughtered so that TCDD would not enter the food chain. Fifteen children were hospitalized with dermatitis. By the end of August, the most affected area (zone A) had been fully evacuated and fenced off. Of the 1,600 residents examined, 447 (nearly a third) were discovered to have chloracne. An advisory center for pregnant woman was founded, and 26 of them decided to abort as a preventive measure.

The TCDD released as a consequence of the 1976 disaster in Italy caused the deaths of thousands of animals, and hundreds of people became ill.

In the most contaminated area, the TCDD concentration ranged between 100 and 5 micrograms per square meter. As for the long-term effects, a 2001 study confirmed that TCDD caused cancer in people and that it had an effect on the cardiovascular and endocrine systems. A study from 2009 produced the same conclusions.

The Seveso disaster also had numerous economic and social consequences. The cleaning operations involved a necessary removal of 40 centimeters of the upper layer of the ground. The procedure cost millions. The disaster lowered the reputation of the town. The sale of agricultural products dropped, as did the value of the land and real estate.

Seveso became synonymous with chemical disasters, but was silently replaced in popular imagination by Chernobyl, so the event has largely been forgotten, Milicevic says. Still, the EU named three of its directives regulating the procedures in cases of disasters involving harmful matters after Seveso.

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