‘Tis the Season to Burn Trash

This is a guest essay written by Dr. Paul Olivier, a US expat who lives in Dalat, a major tourist destination that is known as the honeymoon capital of Viet Nam. The sad and infuriating stories he tells are common throughout Viet Nam. Too many people have a total disregard for the environment. Pollution is a national concern, as evidenced by surveys, and a crisis, in my opinion and that of better informed people.

Contrary to the occasional comment left on his Facebook page by Vietnamese who don’t like foreigners criticizing their country, e.g., if you don’t like it here, go home, Paul cares deeply about Viet Nam and the environment, part of the world that we all inhabit. Otherwise, he wouldn’t spend so much of his precious time advocating on their behalf.

This is an issue I’ve addressed in passing in a number of English and Vietnamese articles and one I plan to focus on more directly. (Here’s an example from a March 2020 article: Perhaps the spirit of cooperation that is anchored in collectivism is a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic and could be leveraged to solve other pressing societal and existential problems such as pollution.)

If people truly love their country and the world, they’ll take good care of it. Viet Nam and the world desperately need more people like Paul Olivier. The future of our planet and therefore our future as a species depend on it.

Postscript: Don’t miss the photos. If you don’t time to view all of them, at least look at some of them in the spirit of seeing is believing and a picture is worth a thousand words. It makes the abstract concrete in seconds.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

All photos by Paul Olivier

Not so long ago, on a bright sunny day, I drove from Dalat to Tan Ha. I saw more than one hundred sites where people were burning trash. On a trip to Dak Nong in the dry season last year, I saw smoke everywhere, from mountain top to mountain top, as far as the eye could see. It is hard to imagine a better way to poison and kill people.

When trash is burned, people get enveloped in a toxic cloud of deadly poisons such as dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, hexachlorobenzene, styrene, particulate matter, black carbon, soot, plus many other deadly chemicals and compounds. Scientists find it hard to decide which is more lethal, particulate matter or dioxins.

Some argue that particulates are the deadliest form of air pollution. “Particulates are the deadliest form of air pollution due to their ability to penetrate deep into the lungs and blood streams unfiltered, causing permanent DNA mutations, heart attacks, and premature death.” In 2013, a study involving 312,944 people in nine European countries revealed that there was no safe level of particulates and that for every increase of 10 μg/m3 in PM10, the lung cancer rate rose 22%. The smaller PM2.5 were particularly deadly, with a 36% increase in lung cancer per 10 μg/m3 as it can penetrate deeper into the lungs” (Particulates).

Some argue that dioxins are the deadliest form of air pollution. According to the World Health Organization, “a piece of dioxin the size of a small grain of rice, if distributed equally and directly to people, is equivalent to the ‘allowable’ yearly dose for one million people” (Eliminating Dioxin). According to the EPA, dioxins are so deadly that the maximum contaminant level goal in drinking water is just about zero – or more exactly 0.00000003 mg/L (What are the EPA’s drinking water regulations for dioxin?). “Dioxin is 60 thousand times more toxic than cyanide” (Dioxin becomes most dangerous man-made poison).

Dioxins can travel a long distance in the air. When they settle on plants, and when these plants are eaten by domesticated poultry and animals, “these dioxins accumulate in the fats of dairy cows, beef, poultry, and swine, making human consumption of these harmful chemicals difficult to avoid” (Human Health). When dioxins enter a stream or river, fatty fish become unsafe to eat. When food containing dioxins are eaten by a mother, “dioxin crosses the placenta, resulting in contamination of a baby before he is born.  Dioxin is stored in breast tissue and can be found in extremely high levels in the breast milk of human mothers” (If breastfeeding is normal, let’s clean up the environment!).

“Much of the world’s air pollution can be blamed on burning garbage,” and “41 percent of our global 2 billion-ton annual garbage output goes up in flames” (Burning Trash Can Be Blamed for Much of World’s Air Pollution, Study Says). According to this study, “29% of global particulate matter called PM 2.5 comes from such fires, as well as 10% of toxic mercury emissions.” About 64% of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons come from the burning of trash. The study also shows that “global trash burning releases about 5% of the world’s man-made emissions of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas.” Burning trash is a great way to destroy a planet.

Take a look at Global Emissions of Trace Gases, Particulate Matter, and Hazardous Air Pollutants from Open Burning of Domestic Waste and Why cutting soot emissions is ‘fastest solution’ to slowing Arctic ice melt.

The ash left over from the burning of trash can contain heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead, chromium and arsenic. Rainwater flushes toxic ash into lakes, streams and rivers. Perhaps this explains why Xuan Huong Lake in Dalat is so polluted with heavy metals. Soil gets heavily polluted with ash, and toxins make their way into groundwater. Drinking water and irrigation water become contaminated.

I have often seen households in Vietnam that burn trash in pits dug into the ground, and not far away are shallow wells which provide drinking water. I have often seen households that fertilize vegetable gardens with ash from the burning of garbage. A few months ago, a policeman in Ward 8 in Dalat explained that he uses the ash from the burn pit within the police compound to fertilize plants and shrubs.

Yes, police burn trash. Professors at the University of Dalat burn trash (picture and picture). Construction workers are notorious for burning trash (picture). Farmers burn trash and agricultural waste. Waste collectors sometimes burn trash in green pushcarts.

A while back, people managing the Dalat landfill set the landfill on fire, and putrid smoke descended upon the entire city. People living in luxurious housing complexes in Dalat often burn trash (picture, picture, picture, picture and picture). On several occasions, I have seen people burning furniture, mattresses and even television sets on Phu Dong Thien Vuong in Dalat (picture). I repeatedly put out fires at three pagodas in Dalat (picture and picture). I once counted eight burn sites at the meteorology complex in Dalat located right next to the office of the chairman of the city. In the picture below, you see the remains of trash that was burned right next to the office of the chairman of Dalat, Mr. Ton Thien San.

The list of health problems associated with burning trash is mind-blowing: reproductive problems, fetal damage, developmental problems, suppression of the immune and hormonal systems, asthma, bronchitis, diabetes, cardiac arrhythmia, high blood pressure, heart attack, liver damage, kidney damage, brain damage, skin diseases and of course, many different types of cancer (Human Health).

For more on the environmental and human health hazards related to dioxins, see An Overview of the Effects of Dioxins and Dioxin-like Compounds on Vertebrates, as Documented in Human and Ecological Epidemiology.

The burning and dumping of trash are forbidden by Vietnamese law (167-2013). The law clearly states that if someone burns trash, a fine of 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 VND should be issued. I have on file more than 500 pictures of people burning trash in Dalat. Most of these pictures were taken in Ward 8.

Many people feel justified in burning trash by pointing to the fact the government burns forestry debris each and every year. At times, the entire city of Dalat is covered with smoke from the burning of forestry debris. However, there is an easy way to stop this senseless burning, as explained in this short presentation, Forest Management.

Over the years, I put out more than a thousand fires in my immediate neighborhood. Each time someone burned trash, I took a picture and showed it to the police and/or ward officers. Never once did they issue a fine. These two pictures were taken within 15 meters of my house.

When the Vietnamese government enforced the law about wearing helmets and when it imposed a virus lockdown, everyone immediately complied. Why can’t the Vietnamese government enact a law outlawing the manufacture and import of single-use plastics? The enforcement of such a law would dramatically reduce the quantity of waste that could be burned.

It’s easy to understand why fines are not issued. Many of those who are entrusted with enforcing the law are continually breaking the law. The police in Ward 8, for example, are operating a burn pit within the police compound. A policeman there once explained to me that their burn pit is used solely to burn confidential papers. But when I inspected their burn pit, I saw water bottles, aluminum cans, playing cards, newspapers, magazines and other such items, as seen in the picture below.

Every time I go to the police station in Ward 8, I see trash and cigarette butts discarded within the compound. See as well the picture below. According to the above law, a fine 5,000,000 to 7,000,000 VND should be issued from littering, and a fine of 60,000 to 100,000 VND should be issued for tossing a cigarette butt on the ground.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Ward 8 office in Dalat and asked Mr. Hieu, an officer there, to come with me to ask the police in Ward 8 to shut down their burn pit. Surprisingly, he came with me to talk to the police. Mr. Hieu promised that he would discuss this matter further with the chairman of the city, and that within one week, the police burn pit would be dismantled.

About two weeks later I visited Mr. Hieu and asked if the police had dismantled their burn pit. He smiled and said yes. But when I went to the police station to verify, two policemen rushed out, grabbed me by the shoulders, pushed me and forcefully stopped me from approaching their burn pit.

In burning trash, littering, and throwing cigarette butts on the ground, the police in Ward 8 are clearly breaking the law. I strongly suspect that the police at other police stations in Dalat are behaving in a similar manner. The grounds of all police stations in Dalat should be inspected from time to time. If laws are being broken, the clueless and irresponsible policemen who burn trash and litter should be severely reprimanded and perhaps fired.

I just received word that the police in Ward 8 had not dismantled their burn pit. They sheepishly offered the lamest excuse imaginable for not doing so: they need their burn pit to store trash. But right next to their burn pit full of trash was a green garbage bin that was empty. It is hard to find words to characterize such empty-headed nonsense.

The burning of trash must stop. Vietnam is dying.

3 thoughts on “‘Tis the Season to Burn Trash

  1. As I mentioned Dalat is a major tourist destination, another reason why they should deal with this problem, in addition to the health and well-being of the people living there and the environment.

  2. Posted on 26.3.21 on Facebook by Paul Olivier with photos: “Yesterday afternoon, a fire was started within 100 meters of my house. So I went to the Ward 8 office to report the incident, and Mr. Hieu said that he could not issue a fine, since these workers probably did not know that they were breaking the law. In other words, a law cannot be enforced if the person breaking the law did not know if he or she was breaking the law.

    I then asked Mr. Hieu if local government should not put out flyers or other notices to the effect that it is against the law to burn trash. He responded that he did not have the time or resources to inform people within his jurisdiction that it is against the law to burn trash.

    If we want to understand why the burning of trash in Dalat goes on and on, we have only to look at the gross negligence and stupidity of civil servants like Mr. Hieu.

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