Sunday, April 11

Rio de Janeiro mudslides: Brazilians treat their poor worse than their zoo animals (UPDATED 2X)

See updates Monday April 12 at the end of this post.
I mentioned in my last post that with Hurricane Katrina in mind I didn't want to overly criticize another country's failure to address situations that guarantee a human disaster when severe weather strikes. But I'm afraid that the revelations from two news reports have put me over the top.

Thaindian reports today that rescue workers searching for survivors in Niteroi city's Morro do Bumba shanty town are gagging from nausea -- not from the smell of decomposing bodies but from inhaling methane gas. The slum is built on a garbage heap that of course is decomposing and emitting large amounts of the gas in the process.

And of course the garbage heap is not a stable foundation for structures. From an AFP report yesterday:
At dawn, rescuers pulled four more bodies from the thick mound of dirt and debris in the Niteroi shantytown of Morro do Bumba, bringing the updated death toll to 219, while another 200 people were believed to be buried alive in the slum, itself precariously perched atop a garbage dump.


Geologist Marcelo Motta, who participated in an investigation of the mudslide, told Globo News television that two cracks in the rocky soil made the [garbage] mound move and pushed down the hill a huge amount of trash saturated with water that had trapped methane gas.[...]
Now for the excuses:
Focus quickly turned on responsibility for the huge death toll and damage. Experts blamed government "complacency" for allowing the country's poorest to build housing haphazardly in areas at risk of natural disasters, such as on the sides of steep hills.

Rio de Janeiro state Governor Sergio Cabral, who briefly visited Morro do Bumba late Friday, laid blame on "all of society."

"I was criticized in some favelas [hillside slums] when I got walls built to prevent them from expanding. In Rocinha, the state compensated 300 families (for relocation). But demagogues criticized us, and sometimes rabble-rousing can be deadly."
Yet since the death toll from the mudslides has embarrassed Brazil on the international stage, I note that Cabral and Rio's mayor suddenly found the courage to stand against the mobs. AFP reports: Cabral has called for "strict measures to withdraw" from areas at risk and asked the Brazilian military to help in rescue efforts. And Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes has adopted a decree to remove "by force," with the help of police, people living in areas at risk.

On April 9 Brazil's planning minister held a conference call with "international reporters" to assure that Brazil's floods wouldn't impact the 2016 Olympics in Rio because the games wouldn't be held in the rainy season. He also outlined steps the government was taking in response to the catastrophe:
[...] Brazilian Planning Minister Paulo Bernardo said funds were being marshaled to repair damages from the flooding in Rio and elsewhere (other Brazilian population centers have also been lashed by floods lately). In the call, Bernardo said 7 billion reais ($3.9 billion) had already been set aside for recovery of flood-stricken areas as part of the government’s pro-economic growth package.

He also said that investments will be made in sanitation, housing and infrastructure so that Rio and other cities will be better prepared for heavy rains in the future.[...]

On Thursday, the government also announced it was dispatching some $100 million in emergency funds as well as a new fleet of ambulances and medical systems to help Rio de Janeiro cope with the impact of the flooding.
The figures Bernardo quotes are a drop in the bucket next to the kind of funds needed to resolve the catastrophe of the shanty towns.

As to any argument that preparation for the Olympics would provide temporary jobs for the residents of the slums -- what was the last nation to show a profit from the summer games? The games have become a vanity event.

I can't imagine that the staff at a Brazilian zoo would allow the animals to live with tons of garbage in their cages. So clearly the people of Brazil value their zoo animals more than they do human life. For that reason the Olympics committee needs to revoke their award of the 2016 games site to Rio de Janeiro. If the committee can't muster that much decency, the Rio Olympics needs to be boycotted.

I don't know how many slums in Brazil are built on landfills. But a big question is whether there's garbage collection for slums that aren't built on landfills. If not, then no one need ask why the slum residents put up with living in those awful conditions, and why they don't seem to be good for work other than menial labor, dancing in samba parades, and doing chores for criminal gangs. Landfills/garbage dumps give off several toxic gases in addition to methane, which is itself toxic, and which are harmful to the human brain and nervous system.

Below is a 2004 study of the gases given off by a landfill in the United States and the health hazards associated with each gas. As you can see by looking down the list several gases cause birth defects, neurological damage, and brain damage. (This says nothing about the damage done to organs such as kidneys and liver.)

So if Brazilian children in the slums are playing in the garbage dumps and/or their domiciles are literally built on top of the dumps, you're looking at a lot of brain damaged children. And I would assume it would be the same for fetuses if pregnant women live on the landfills.

These observations don't even begin to address whether the toxins are in the water supplies used by slum residents.
Operable Unit 2 Landfills
Former Fort Ord, California
Revision C
June 2004

Prepared by Dr. Peter L. deFur
Environmental Stewardship Concepts
1108 Westbriar Dr., Suite F
Richmond VA 23238

Comments prepared for the Fort Ord Administrative record

These comments were prepared at the request of the Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network (FOEJN) to provide technical comment to the Army and summarize the report on landfill gases for the community. FOEJN represents the affected community in the greater Fort Ord area in the clean up of contamination and ordnance related waste.

Summary of the landfill gas probe monitoring program:

Landfills are required by federal law to monitor the amount of methane gas, and some other gases produced by the landfill. Methane is produced as a product of the decomposition of the waste that goes into the landfill. The decomposition processes also consumes oxygen and produces carbon dioxide, heat and other gases in addition to the methane. Methane is both toxic and explosive, and as a gas, can move through soils and other barriers, possibly accumulating in homes, and other buildings.

Therefore, in order to protect against poisoning and explosions, federal law requires that the owners and/or operators of landfills monitor methane and other gases that are produced. Closed landfills have gas vents and some have gas wells installed to allow sampling (and collection) of the gases produced by the decomposition of the waste in the landfill.

Federal (and state) laws set a limit on the amount of methane that may be found in gases at the perimeter of the landfill property – this limit is 5%. The 5% limit is based on the explosive nature of methane – at 5% in air, methane can ignite. Air monitoring at the property boundary must be conducted on a regular basis (usually quarterly) to confirm that methane is less than 5% in the air. If methane is found at levels above 5%, the regulatory authority may (and should) require the responsible party to take measures to control the methane releases. Such control may include active air pumping, burning the gas, installing a set of air collection tubes on the top of the landfill, or some combination of these (and other) measures.

General Comments on the Report:

According to the presentations at the Community Involvement Workshop on July 13, 2004 and the Technical Review Committee on July 14, 2004, the Army has completed additional air sampling of ambient air, and measurement of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) on these additional samples. Those additional results need to be referenced or summarized in the report on the perimeter probe sampling, as a matter of reference and to provide a more complete picture of the conditions at the landfill.

The Landfill Gas Perimeter Probe Monitoring Report summarizes the results from gas sampling in the vicinity of the landfills. Samples were taken from the landfill probes at depths of 12, 22 or 32 feet, from passive vents and ambient air.

Samples from landfill probes were taken via devices that allowed sampling at specific depths indicated.

The report gives general descriptions of the methods used to obtain the samples from the probes, but is not specific on how the vent samples were obtained. This omission limits the interpretability of the results from the vent samples.

According to Figure 6-2, tables and the other figures, methane levels in the landfill are elevated, exceeding 5% on average in all cells over the past four years. Landfill cell F has the highest methane levels – the average methane was about 40% over the years.

These elevated methane levels were reported in the probe samples at depths, and in the vent samples (see Table 4-2). The report does not indicate what gas these samples represent, whether the samples are gas at the surface where the gas leaves the landfill, or from some depth, or mixed from multiple depths. The description on page 1-2 of the report is consistent with the conclusion that the vents release landfill gas to ambient air.

The risk from methane is thus present throughout the landfill area in the soil and seemingly at the surface. Vent samples are passive vents from the landfill interior and usually produce gas from throughout the depth of the landfill and vent that gas to the ambient air.

The high levels of methane measured in the landfill and at the vents present a potential toxic and explosive hazard. The Army needs to post the entire area thoroughly and indicate that the area inside the landfill perimeter is an explosive hazard and there should be no smoking, fires or trespassing. The area needs to be posted as a danger.

Page 2-3, section concludes that the results of the volatile organic chemical analysis yielded mostly non-detected results. This conclusion is disingenuous because of the large number of samples and the large number of chemicals measured (even if not detected).

The truth is that the text on pages 2-3 to 2-4 and the data in Table 2-1 indicate that 32 different organic chemicals were detected in one or more samples from the 15 sampling probe locations. Six of these chemicals were detected at 10 or more samplings and Freon 114 was found at all locations where it was measured.

The compounds in the landfill gas range in toxic properties from alcohols, to freons (several different kinds), to carcinogenic benzene and the neurotoxic carbon disulfide. These samples were obtained from the probe sampling at depths of 12, 22 or 32 feet. The toxicity of these compounds is complex and varied, the effects are described briefly in the last section of the present report review. The widespread distribution of this range of toxic chemicals is a potential risk that requires further delineation and possibly remediation.

The VOC sampling should be extended to include vent samples and ambient air samples to determine if these chemicals are being released into the ambient air and at concentrations that pose a threat to human health.

If the chemicals occur at depths of 12, 22 and 32 feet in such distribution and concentration, then it is likely that they are escaping into the ambient air at the landfill. Apparently, some portion of this sampling has already been completed and is reported elsewhere. Nonetheless, the air that is vented from the landfill and ambient air at the fenceline needs to be sampled.

Specific Comments on the Report:

Figure 1-5 is not consistent with text and Table 2-1. Either it is labeled incorrectly or the text is not right or there is some other error. The text on page 6-1 (last paragraph, first sentence) and Table 2-1 refer to 15 samples for VOC’s, yet Figure only shows 11 such samplings. These inconsistencies need to be corrected.

The methane levels presented in Table 2-3 with averages given in the text should be plotted graphically and compared with the perimeter probe data that measured methane in the landfill at depth.

Health Effects of Compounds Released in Fort Ord Landfill Gas

Acetone: Can cause irritation to the eyes, throat, and lungs. Inhalation can also induce headache, nausea, vomiting, increased pulse rate, adverse effects on the blood, shortening of the menstrual cycle, light headedness, and confusion. Exposure to higher levels has also been known to cause coma. Health effects from long-term exposures are known mostly from animal studies. Kidney, liver, and nerve damage, increased birth defects, and lowered ability to reproduce (males only) occurred in animals exposed long-term.

Acrylonitrile: Exposure to this compound can cause difficulty breathing, fluid accumulation in the lungs, weakness and paralysis. Exposure to the skin can cause blistering and a rash. Decreased fertility rates and birth defects have been observed in animals exposed to acrylonitrile. This compound is also considered to be a probable carcinogen. Children seem to be more prone to suffering form these effects.

Benzene: Benzene primarily targets the blood in humans. It attacks the bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cell count leading to anemia. Benzene also can increase bleeding and greatly suppresses the immune system. The EPA considers benzene to be a known carcinogen.

Bromodichloromethane: Animal studies indicate that the liver, kidney, and central nervous system are affected by exposure to bromodichloromethane. The effects of high doses on the central nervous system include sleepiness and incoordination. Longer exposure to lower doses causes damage to the liver and kidneys. There is some evidence from animal studies that bromodichloromethane may cause birth defects at doses high enough to make the mother sick. DHHS considers bromodichloromethane to be a carcinogen.

Bromoform: Can cause damage to the liver and kidneys. Possibly causes birth defects, but this has not been thoroughly researched. The EPA lists bromoform as a probable human carcinogen.

Bromomethane: Exposure to high levels can cause difficulty breathing, muscle tremors, seizures, kidney and nerve damage, and possible death. Lower levels can also cause kidney and liver damage, and possibly damage to the nervous system. Birth defects have been noted after high levels of exposure in animals. Bromomethane has been shown to be genotoxic, but data is inconclusive as to whether or not it causes cancer.

1,3-Butadiene: Long term exposure to this compound has been documented to cause birth defects (primarily low birth weight), as well as degeneration of the reproductive organs. The EPA has found this compound to be a definitive human carcinogen.

Carbon Disulfide: Long term exposure to carbon disulfide has caused headaches, exhaustion, trouble sleeping, and changes in the nervous system. Animal studies have shown that it can alter the normal functions of the brain, liver, and heart. Birth defects have also been reported. This compound has not been tested for carcinogenicity.

Carbon Tetrachloride: Can cause damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Birth defects have been noted in animal studies, as well as cancer. The EPA lists carbon tetrachloride as a probable human carcinogen.

Chlorobenzene: The liver, kidneys, and nervous system are all affected by this compound. Tremors and restlessness have been noted at lower levels, and high levels can cause unconsciousness or death. Long term exposure can also cause liver and kidney damage.

Chloroethane: High levels of exposure can lead to feelings of intoxication as well as eye irritation, nausea, and vomiting. It is used as a numbing agent for surgery, and some patients have experienced allergic reactions. Long term exposure has caused cancer in animals.

Chloroform: Long term exposure to chloroform can cause damage to the liver and kidneys. Animal studies have shown that this compound can cause birth defects and damage to the reproductive organs. Chloroform is considered to be a human carcinogen.

Chloromethane: Exposures to high levels, even for short periods of time can cause serious damage to the nervous system, leading to convulsions and even death. Lower levels can still cause staggering, blurred vision, dizziness, fatigue, personality changes, tremors, confusion, nausea, or vomiting. These symptoms can persist for months or even years. Beyond damaging the nervous system, chloromethane can also damage the liver and kidneys. Animal studies have shown that it can cause slower growth and brain damage in young individuals. Those same studies have shown that birth defects are possible after exposure, as well as damage to reproductive organs (particularly in males) that induce sterilization. The EPA classifies chloromethane as a possible human carcinogen.

α-Chlorotoluene: There is little data on this compound. One study has shown decrease in body weight to be a potential side effect, along with an increase in heart and testes weight. No studies have been performed to determine carcinogenicity.

Cyclohexane: Studies have shown a decrease in auditory response in animals exposed to the compound. Little other data has been collected on this compound.

Dibromochloromethene: This compound has been found to cause liver damage and is listed as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA.

1,2-Dibromoethane: This compound has been widely shown to cause a variety of reproductive problems ranging from lower fertility rates to damaged sperm. Birth defects have also been recorded in animals, as well as other developmental problems including changes in the brain of young rats whose male parents had been exposed. Liver and kidney damage is also possible with low levels of exposure. 1,2-dibromoethane has been determined to be a carcinogen.

Dichlorobenzene: Causes damage to liver, and kidneys. 1,2 and 1,3-dichlorobenzene are not known to be carcinogens, however 1,4-dichlorbenzene is considered a probable carcinogen.

Dichloroethene: Exposure to dichloroethene can cause decreases in liver and lung weight, and high exposure levels can significantly lower birth weights and some neurological effects. An MRL of 1 mg/kg/day has been established for oral exposure to this compound. It should be noted that dichloroethene can break down into vinyl chloride, a much more toxic compound.

1,2-Dichloropropane: Experiments examining exposure in animals have found that long term exposure leads to weight loss, mild damage to the respiratory tract, liver, spleen, and blood. Degeneration of the testes has also been observed. Studies examining the potential of this compound as a carcinogen have not been completed.

1,3-Dichloropropene: Long term exposure can cause damage to nose and lung tissues. Exposure to this compound can also cause individuals to be more sensitive to its effects in the future. Animal studies have shown that individuals whose skin had been exposed to dichloropropene suffered from hair loss, rash, as well as bleeding from the lungs and stomach. DHHS has concluded that this compound may reasonably be considered to be a carcinogen.

1,4-Dioxane: The EPA rates this compound as a probable human carcinogen.

Ethyl Benzene: There is little data on this compound. Animal studies have shown exposure can cause eye irritation, affects on the nervous system, and damage to the liver and kidneys. There is limited data that ethyl benzene may cause cancer but this is inconclusive.

Freon Compounds: There is little information on the toxicological effects of these compounds. High levels can cause liver damage, while lower levels can cause abnormalities in the kidneys.

Heptane: No data on this compound beyond the fact that the EPA does not classify it as a human carcinogen.

Methyl Ethyl Ketone: Methyl ethyl ketone, also known as 2-butanone, can cause respiratory irritation in addition to renal and hepatic congestion. The compound also affects the CNS, decreasing mobility and causing tremors. Developmental effects such as birth defects and lower birth weight have also been reported.

4-Methyl-2-pentanone: Irritant to the respiratory tract. Can cause headache, nausea, shortness of breath, and vomiting. Animal studies show that this compound can also damage the liver and kidneys.

Styrene: Long term exposure has caused brain, liver and kidney damage in animals, as well as irritation to the respiratory tract. Other animal studies have shown reproductive and developmental effects after short term exposure to high levels. This compound is considered to be possibly carcinogenic by IARC.

1,1,2,2-Tetrachloroethane: High levels can cause difficulty breathing, heart and liver damage, neurological effects, and possibly death. Lower levels can cause blood abnormalities, drops in blood pressure, and possibly reproductive problems. It is possible that this compound causes cancer but experiments investigating this were inconclusive.

Tetrachloroethene: Long term exposure can cause damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Animal studies have shown that this compound causes cancer. The use of alcoholic beverages enhances these effects.

Tetrahydrofuran: Can cause coughing and shortness of breath. Long term exposure can cause liver or kidney damage, and may also affect the lungs.

1,2,4-Trichlorobenzene: Can cause irritation to the respiratory tract as well as coughing, drowsiness, narcosis, uncoordination, liver damage, headache, increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as tremors. Chronic exposure can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and skin. Possible carcinogen.

1,1,1-Trichloroethane: Can cause light headedness and dizziness at low levels. Higher levels can cause unconsciousness, drops in blood pressure, and even death. Experiments in animals have found that long term exposure can cause damage to the lungs and liver as well as neurological effects. Exposure during pregnancy has caused birth defects and other developmental problems in experiments with rats.

1,1,2-Trichloroethane: High levels can cause liver and kidney damage as well as mild neurological effects such as drowsiness and nervousness. Adverse effects on the stomach, kidneys, blood, and liver have also been seen in experiments in animals. Those same experiments have shown that this configuration of trichloroethane can also cause cancer.

1,2,4-Trimethlybenzene: High levels can cause damage to the respiratory system as well as the nervous system. Animal studies have shown that exposure can cause damage to reproductive systems and exposure during pregnancy can cause birth defects.

1,3,5-Trimethylbenzene: Little data is known on the health effects of this particular compound. Known to cause irritation to the respiratory tract, depression of the central nervous system, and effect the liver and blood.

Trichloroethene: Inhalation can cause irritation of the respiratory tract and neurological effects such as dizziness, confusion, and headache. Liver and kidney damage is also possible. If the exposure is long term, these symptoms may become chronic. TCE is also listed as a probable carcinogen.

Toluene: Toluene affects a wide variety of systems, from respiratory to reproductive. Exposure can cause lung irritation, pulmonary lesions, damage to the tracheal epithelium, and decreased levels of blood lymphocytes. A wide variety of neurological effects have also been reported such as headache, dizziness, memory loss, narcosis, increased dopamine and norepinephrine levels, hearing loss, and depression of cognitive and motor skills. The kidneys are also targeted, resulting in increased kidney weight, necrosis of tubules, and renal cysts. A wide variety of developmental effects have been documented as well such as low birth weight, higher instance of birth defects, and a decrease in fetal hippocampus weight.

Vinyl Acetate: Has depressed the immune system of animals in experimental studies.

Vinyl Chloride: Vinyl Chloride is well documented to be a carcinogen. Other documented effects include hepatic cysts, decreased blood clotting time, testicular necrosis, cellular alteration within the liver, and increases in heart and kidney weights.

Xylenes: Xylenes primarily affect the central nervous system. Long term exposure can cause headaches, lack of coordination, dizziness, confusion, and changes in balance. High levels may also cause damage to the liver and kidneys. Animals studies have shown that exposure during pregnancy increased infant mortality rates and caused developmental problems in the offspring. The mothers of these offspring also encountered a greater number of health problems as a result of exposure.

“This document has been funded partly or wholly through the use of U.S EPA Technical Assistance Grant Funds. Its contents do not necessarily reflect the policies, actions or positions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network Inc. does not speak for nor represent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

Mention of any trade name or commercial product or company does not constitute endorsement by any individual or party that prepared or sponsored this report.
UPDATE April 12
Today RBO blog, which crossposted this entry, received an interesting comment on the post, which I share with readers here along with my reply:

"Pundita makes all good points. There is no reason any human being should be living on top of garbage heaps regardless of their income. But, I lived & worked in Rio for 2 years for an NGO. Our task was to help the City of Rio stop using their current trash dump (Gramacho) which the city wanted closed for fear the rains would eventually sink it into the Guayabera Bay (it will someday). The Mayor wanted a new waste management dump built out west with advanced waste to energy technology & recycyling.

The move was met with so much resistance, it never happened. Who put up the resistance? Activists representing the people who made a living off of collecting trash from the dump. They even had official credentials to allow them to do this. Eventually, the Mayor backed down quietly conceding defeat from the trash “mafia.”

So the current Governor is correct in assigning blame – it’s all of society in Rio (Rich & Poor). The citizens point the blame at elected officials and the elected officals point the blame at the citizens. They are both pointing in the right direction! Que pena!
Rio Rob"

Dear Rio Rob:
Thank you for your very informative comments. “Eyes on the ground” are so important when one is trying to understand complex situations in another country.

I wonder if your NGO’s contacts in the mayor’s office had read the kind of report that Peter L. deFur prepared on the two landfills at former Fort Ord and which I republished in my post. The report shows in detailed fashion that landfills/ garbage dumps are extremely toxic and a big danger to human health.

I also wonder if the trash pickers are illiterate and part of a low ‘caste’ or class that is shunned by other Brazilians. Such situations are often the case in ‘developing’ countries with jobs that are considered unclean.

In any event Brazil is aspiring to be a regional power; the situations with open trash dumps in Rio and shanty towns built on garbage dumps are inexcusable.

The mayor’s office should undertake a very vigorous campaign to educate the populace about the toxicity of the garbage dumps — and develop job training/literacy programs for the trash pickers to wean them away from their traditional means of earning a living.

I think the international community can be a help in this by pointing the ‘finger of shame’ at Brazil. That is why I was so harsh in my language. With the Olympic games on the horizon this is a good time for outsiders, including NGOs, to prod the administrations in Rio state to deal with problems they have not tried hard enough to address.

Touristas also share some blame in this — a situation I’ve seen in other developing countries. They tend to look the other way.

Rio Rob, I did a little checking on the internet about Gramacho. If this December 9, 2009 article at Zimbio website is to be believed, Gramacho is closing in 2012. What I found very surprising from the article is that the trash sorters only number 1,300. That is a very small number of people to have stopped the landfill from shutting given the environmental disaster it posed.

I'm wondering if there isn't more to the story. It would be interesting to learn which company got the contract to build a waste management plant in Gramacho's place if it is indeed closing. Money talks, nobody walks; maybe the company that got the contract just greased more palms.

Here's the text of the article:

"Latin America's Largest Landfill Set to Close in 2012

Referred to as the largest open-air landfill in Latin America, the waste disposal site of Jardim Gramacho processes up to 9,000 pounds of trash daily from Rio de Janeiro. The landfill provides a livelihood for over 1000 trash pickers who make an average daily wage of $20 separating the trash from paper, cans and plastics that are then sold as recyclables. Gramacho opened in 1978 and is said to have reached its trash capacity years ago. The landfill is currently set to close in 2012 to avert an environmental disaster but jeopardizing the work of the 1,300 trash pickers left who have few other employment options."

1 comment:

Priscilla said...

Studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, have found that the levels in which consumers are exposed to are not high enough to cause health fears. Further, polystyrene has not been classified by any regulatory organization in the world to be a known human carcinogen. Additionally, in 2006 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Toxicology Program determined styrene to be of "negligible concern" for effects on human development and reproduction, including endocrine effects.

Priscilla Briones for the Styrene Information and Research Center (SIRC), Arlington, Virginia. SIRC ( is a trade association that represents interests of the North American styrene industry with its mission being the collection, development, analysis and communication of pertinent information on styrene.