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This is poisoning my son

ash from burned plastic

A few days ago, in the middle of the day, I noticed a smell of burning plastic wafting in the open window of my home office. I looked outside and saw small flecks of black soot or ash tumbling to the ground. When I rushed downstairs and investigated, I discovered a thick plume of noxious smoke coming from a neighbour’s chimney. The little flecks of ash are so fine that the merest touch turns them into black smears.

Burning rubbish seems to be a common enough practice where I live in Blarney, Co. Cork. It hasn’t happened as often in the last few months as in previous years, maybe because of stricter surveillance of backyard burning. When it was at it’s height, I jokingly considered campaigning for an incinerator to be located in Blarney. At least that could properly trap all the toxins released by burning rubbish and it would be regulated.

Anyway, I decided that I need to speak to my neighbour. I politely asked them to stop burning rubbish in their fireplace, I mentioned that there was soot all over the patio in our garden, and that it had wafted into the house through open windows too. They were suitably apologetic, promising that it wouldn’t happen again. That’s as far as I took it, because I like that neighbour. He’s a nice guy and his wife is a warm woman with a ready smile.

Imagine my shock this morning when I looked out the kitchen door and say soot all over the patio again. Someone had been burning rubbish last night. What do I do now?

My son Adam sleeps in a bedroom overlooking the back garden. His window was closed last night because of the chill, but if it’s warm, then it’s open. According to this article I should be very worried about what my son breathes.

Children can be at much greater risk. Because of their body size, they inhale more air per pound of body mass than do adults, and can absorb a proportionately larger “dose” of toxins.

Children’s bodies are more susceptible to damage from the heavy metals found in the smoke of rubbish fires because their nervous systems are not fully developed. Poly-Vinyl Chloride, or PVC, is a commonly used plastic for vinyl flooring (sometimes called carpeting or lyno), drain pipes, guttering, shampoo bottles, packaging, and thousands of other products.

Apparently 57% of rural dwellers in West Cork burn their rubbish. That’s 5 out of every 12 households. Blarney is an urban area however with a regular waste collection. Quentin Gargan has a blog post on this and gorse burning. Here’s the Irish Examiner article he mentioned. A note from Cork Corporation reminds residents that burning rubbish is illegal:

Cork City Council wishes to draw attention to the fact that under the Waste Management Act 1996 as amended that it is an offence to dispose of waste in a manner which causes or is likely to cause environmental pollution.

The disposal of household and garden waste by burning is one such method of disposal that is deemed likely to cause environmental pollution and furthermore is a source of annoyance to persons in the adjoining locality.

I have no idea who burned the rubbish that caused the soot in my garden this morning. I could presume it was the same neighbour but there isn’t any proof. I could stay up all night, with a window open, ready to catch the tell tale odour of burning plastic. Or I could call the Cork County Council litter warden.

Besides the obvious damage burning rubbish does to your health, this may also lead to neighbours falling out and fighting. If the same neighbour is responsible, they have put me and my wife in the unenviable position of having to fight this illegal behaviour. If this turns bad for them, if they’re fined, they’re going to blame us even though it’s their fault in the first place. No wonder people don’t report their neighbours.

What would you do?

Aperture ƒ/8
Camera Canon EOS 20D
Focal length 72mm
ISO 100
Shutter speed 1/160s

By Donncha

Donncha Ó Caoimh is a software developer at Automattic and WordPress plugin developer. He posts photos at In Photos and can also be found on Twitter.

10 replies on “This is poisoning my son”

Knock knock…

“Hello, lovely warm neighbour with who I have had previous burning rubbish incident. Just popping by to ask: are you noticing soot or ash in your back garden? I’m just asking because I’m trying to determine which house it’s coming from so I can report it to the council.”

Neighbour: “Blah blah blah no idea wasn’t me blah blah…”

“Ah, well, thank you anyway. I’m going to have to keep investigating as it’s becoming a problem for my infant son’s breathing when it happens. Please let me know if you find anything out.”

Sabrina has it right on the nose!

As a slight a point of correction, I believe that 57% is closer to 7 in 12 (58.3%) than 5 in 12 (41.7%) or expressed slightly more accurately, 8 in 14 (57.1%). 🙂

What’s more important: your relationship with your neighbours; or the health of you, your children and everyone else living in the area?

I do like Sabrina’s approach. Maybe follow up with a “Well, the council are on the case, so hopefully they’ll get to the bottom of it”.

Thanks for all the comments, we haven’t decided yet about how to proceed but it’ll probably be the softly-softly approach still. I’m going to call to them during the week with my baby boy in my arm with a printout of the Fijitimes article above.

I noticed this morning that Adam’s bedroom window sill, which was painted only last year, is covered in little black dots … My office sill is almost as bad.

It’s a tough one Donncha as you will have to live with the consequences whichever choice you make.

Sabrina’s suggestion is a good one, but it may not resolve the issue. I would add “I’ll just have to stay up some night to find out who’s doing it” so they know you’re going to be actively monitoring the situation.

One thing you could do tell your neighbour that you were worried about the smell and the fumes and that you were going to call the fire brigade. But you decided to check with them first if there was a problem. Remind them that they are not supposed to burn rubbish and that if it happens again you will call the fire brigade to put it out. Also there are call out charges for the fire brigade which are not cheap…


Yippee! After a glorious day spent in the country with my cousins, walking down deserted lanes, breathing in the lovely clear air of West Cork we came home to the same neighbour burning rubbish again. My wife Jacinta has gone down to someone in the residents association to talk about it. Grrr.
(Also posted on my post)

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