Northern Quebec communities concerned about impact of burning garbage on health, environment

In the village of Inukjuak on the northeast shore of the Hudson Bay, trash isn’t something that vanishes to some far-off landfill in the back of a garbage truck. It stays close by. Then, it burns.

“Burning of the domestic waste is a big problem in my community,” Shaomik Inukpuk, the town manager of Inukjuak, told Quebec’s environmental review board, the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE), last June during consultations with northern Indigenous communities.

He wasn’t the only one raising the issue.

During the consultations in Quebec, Inuit and Naskapi communities expressed their concerns over the garbage problem.

North of the 55th parallel, the permafrost means the earth is too hard to dig landfill sites. Since there are no incinerators, waste is burned in the open. There are 14 such landfills in Nunavik — one for each community.

Quebec law requires garbage be burned “at least once a week, weather conditions permitting” in order to control the amount of trash and to “prevent wild and domestic animals from scattering residual materials.” Burning is also supposed to prevent toxins from leaching into the soil.

But the BAPE’s report, released last month, raises concerns over the practice and its impact on the health of nearby communities and on the environment.

And given what’s at stake, the BAPE says it is surprised “that no public health study has been undertaken so far in Quebec to document the levels of environmental contamination and exposure of populations” living near northern landfills.

No rule on distance from homes

The regulation does not set a minimum distance between homes and northern landfills — and most of those landfills are located a few kilometres from the villages.

But in some cases, such as Inukjuak and Kuujjuarapik, they are only a few hundred meters from the nearest houses, “inside the community itself,” according to Inukpuk.

This means that garbage smoke regularly wafts over the people nearby, as well as over the animals and fish they rely on for food.

“The smoke is not safe for our environment. Because the people living here still rely on country food, they have to go fishing, they have to go hunting, the food source that they go after is jeopardized by the smoke of the dump,” Inukpuk said.

Many people in northern Quebec rely on the land for their food, and there are concerns smoke from garbage may be affecting that food source. (Photo submitted by Hooké)

Potentially serious health effects

When the BAPE released its 698-page report about Quebec’s garbage situation last month, it devoted a chapter to the problems facing northern Indigenous communities.

It confirmed what many northerners already suspected: It can’t be good to have garbage burning right next door.

The report points out that household waste piled up in a small dump is hard to burn properly. So garbage fires “reach temperatures too low to produce complete combustion and consequently generate large quantities of particles and numerous contaminants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and furans.”

It cites research that says the smoke can easily reach surrounding communities when pushed by adverse winds.

Eco-centres to collect things like toxic materials, batteries and old car parts are extremely rare in the north. While people are not supposed to throw toxic materials they don’t have many safe options. It’s hard to know exactly what is in the trash bags that get picked up.

“Ground burning practices are indeed considered a threat to the health of local populations due to the numerous releases of potentially toxic contaminants,” the BAPE report said.

This photo, taken in 2018 at the Kuujjuuaq dump, shows how intense the fire and smoke can be when garbage is burned. (Submitted by Jean-Paul Baïlon)

According to a federal government brochure, open burning of garbage can cause health problems including headaches, nausea and rashes. Exposure to certain toxic chemicals found in smoke, such as dioxins and furans, is associated with some cancers and with the impairment of the immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems, among other effects.

“The potential risks to the health of neighbouring communities are therefore real, especially among more vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and people who are already weakened by health problems,” the BAPE report said.

Quebec’s Health Ministry said in an email that it is “aware of the health impacts associated with northern landfills.”

The BAPE said that in the absence of data, it is “imperative” to document the exposure of neighbouring communities “to the contaminants emitted by such burning.” And it said it wants the provincial Environment Ministry to look into how the land and wildlife are being contaminated as well.

The Health Ministry says the BAPE recommendations deserve to be analyzed but points out that, to date, “no public health issue related to northern landfills has been brought to our attention.”

But, back in June, when the BAPE asked a representative of the ministry, Koffi Banabessey, how he assessed the priority of a study of the issue on a scale of one to 10, he was adamant.

“The priority would be 10,” Banabessey said, “because that would be very important.”

The village of Kuujjuarapik, in Nunavik, where people are concerned about the effect of burning garbage. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Still, the ministry has no concrete plans for a study any time soon, in part, it says because “the context of the pandemic did not allow the necessary resources to be allocated to this file.”

The problem, however, dates back to long before COVID-19.

“Several of these sites opened in the 1980s are almost full today,” notes the Kativik Regional Government (KRG), in its latest Nunavik Residual Materials Management Plan, completed in 2015.

But the Kativik government has not asked the Quebec government to study the health impacts of northern landfills, according to Véronique Gilbert, assistant director for the environment and land use planning at the KRG.

That doesn’t mean Kativik doesn’t consider it a problem.

“It is certain that the open burning of stuff, potentially plastics or materials that can be dangerous or emit gases dangerous to health, is not ideal,” Gilbert said.

“What is not allowed elsewhere in Quebec should not be tolerated in Nunavik” says the Makivik Corporation, which represents the Inuit of Nunavik, in a brief presented to the BAPE in June.

“We urge the Quebec Government to take actions to support our region to adopt safer practices in order to reduce those risks and protect the health of our communities.”

The community of Inukjuak in Nunavik, Quebec. The village dump is very close to many homes, the town manager says. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

More information needed

Virginie Noël-Aloise, an environmental health advisor for the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services (NRBHSS), described a typical burn.

“Most of the time, the burn temperature is too low. Waste is not always sorted. … sometimes, we light a fire in the morning, and 15 minutes later, the wind changes, and then the smoke goes right into the communities,” she said.

She listed the potential health effects of open-air burning of waste for the BAPE.

In the short term, they include impacts on the respiratory system, such as irritation of mucous membranes, worsening of asthma, and coughing.

Long-term potential effects reflect federal warnings about certain cancers and impairment of the immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems. But these are “not really applicable in Nunavik, since it’s, most of the time, short-term exposure” for the populations, said Noël-Aloise.

And there’s “the smell,” she added. “It’s not a health risk, but it’s a discomfort that people have been complaining about, and it’s mostly related to the smoke when the winds are in the other direction.”

Still, the health board hasn’t heard about any formal complaints.

“We mainly hear about nuisance, either unpleasant odours or visual pollution,” the board said in an email. “There is no evidence or connections made between these nuisances and health issues in Nunavik.”

But “having no data, it is currently impossible to make the link between health problems experienced by the population and northern landfills in Nunavik,” said the NRBHSS.

Asked whether it had asked the Health Ministry to conduct such a study, the health board said that it does want to study the issue.

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