On a recent cold winter night, Aziz Ahmad put some plastic in his stove in order to heat his house.
Recent fuel shortages have caused the price of wood, coal and oil to double, leaving many people with no option but to feed their fires with plastic.
“The room heated well and the children were very happy,” Mr Ahmad accounted. “Then I noticed a bad smell in the air. My seven-year-old son complained of a headache and refused to eat. We closed all the doors and windows in order to keep the house warm. My son then fell unconscious to the floor.’” The cause of his son’s illness was the toxins released into the air from the burning plastic.
Karima lives in a refugee camp. Her children collect plastic and bring it home to burn in the fire.
“Plastic is very cheap and the children can find it in the trash,” she said. “This is the only way we can cook food and make tea and heat the home.”
But Karima did not realize that the dizziness her children were experiencing was caused by the toxins released from the burning plastic. “Early in the morning when I went outside I noticed a very bad smell in the air. I had a headache for a week,” she said.
Doctors at Herat hospital are increasingly seeing health problems caused by smoke inhalation as cold temperatures and the skyrocketing prices of fuel force people to burn plastic in their fires.
Both doctors and environmentalists warn that burning plastic is a hazard to both the health of people and to the environment.
“Plastic releases carbon monoxide into the environment. It is very dangerous for families, especially children and mothers who stay at home and do not go outside to get fresh air. Toxic fumes from burning plastic cause childhood pneumonia, lung cancer, bronchitis and heart disease. I ask families to not burn plastic instead of wood, and to keep the house well-ventilated to decrease the possibility of breathing in the fumes,” said Doctor Anisa, a doctor in Herat.
People suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning will get headaches and lose their appetite. They should be taken outside for fresh air. Dr Anisa said that if their skin turns pale they should be brought to a clinic for treatment, and their chest should be kept uncovered so as not to restrict their breathing.
Toxins released into the air from burning plastic can lead to the contamination of plants, soil, surface water and groundwater. Pollutants can also be absorbed by food crops.
Unfortunately it is not just burning plastic indoors that creates a health hazard. Inhaling smoke caused by burning coal, wood or straw indoors also leads to illness, especially in children. According to the World Health Organization, indoor smoke kills 54,000 Afghans each year, mostly children under five years old. WHO considers burning solid fuels indoors as one of the worst health risks facing the poor. The safest way to heat a home is with electricity.