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Toxic smoke from a scrapyard fire – Expert Reaction

Authorities have issued a toxic smoke warning in South Auckland after a 70 x 70 metre pile of scrap metal went up in flames in the middle of the night.

South Auckland residents have been advised to close doors and windows. Fire and Emergency New Zealand district manager Brad Mosby told 1News that composites of plastics mixed with the scrap metal were cause for concern of toxicity.

The SMC asked local experts to comment on the potential health hazards of such smoke.

Dr Guy Coulson, Principal Scientist – Air Quality, NIWA, comments:

“Exposure to smoke of any kind is generally bad for you as it can contain all kinds of nasties. For example, even wood smoke has a dozen or more known carcinogens in it and hundreds of other organic compounds of undecided or unknown toxicity.

“There are two main ways smoke causes harm. Particles, any composition, irritate and inflame the lungs causing respiratory symptoms. They also enter the bloodstream and cause cardiovascular problems – all the way up to heart attacks and strokes.

“Then there is the toxicity or how poisonous the compounds, gaseous or particulate, in the smoke are.

“As the article implies, cars and other vehicles have a complex mixture of plastics, composites and heavy metals, not to mention residual oils, etc. All of these will be released to the air in a fire.

“Burning plastics can release any number of carcinogens, the results of exposure to these may not become apparent for years, and other compounds that are more immediately harmful. Without knowing what materials there are, it’s impossible to say much more than general comments.

“Anyone immediately downwind is at risk, particularly those with respiratory or cardiovascular conditions. How much at risk depends on lots of things but chiefly how windy it is and how close they are. It looks like the wind has changed and is now carrying the smoke to the north and over a lot more of the city. People are reporting smelling it 15km away!”

No conflicts of interest declared.