Why teargas and burning tyres are harmful to humans

A protester throws a used tyre in a burning fire during Azimio la Umoja's anti-government protests at Makina in Kibra, Nairobi on March 27,2023. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The heat was unbearable, but the young men on Kisumu streets showed no signs of giving up.

They had set tyres ablaze to block major roads, sending thick black smoke billowing into the sky.

The sound of their voices, chanting slogans and demanding change filled the air. Suddenly, a hail of teargas canisters rained down on the crowd and chaos erupted.

While many consider this a form of protest or frustration, the consequences of burning tyres appear to have far-reaching effects on the environment and human health, according to experts.

Steve Nyamori, deputy director at the Kenya National Cleaner Production Centre, says burning tyres releases toxic chemicals harmful to human health and the environment.

“These chemicals can cause respiratory problems, skin irritation, and even cancer. When burnt, they release harmful gases that cause air pollution and contribute to climate change,” he says. 

He says that in addition to the release of toxic chemicals, burning tyres also produces large amounts of black carbon. This is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

According to a study by the United Nations Environment Programme, burning tyres is one of the largest sources of black carbon emissions in the world.

Nyamori says that the effects of burning tyres are not limited to the environment. The smoke emitted from burning tyres can cause a wide range of respiratory problems, including asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer. 

Boniface Akach, a human rights activist based in Kisumu, says burning tyres is a form of expression for many people who feel marginalised and ignored by the government.

“Teagas is a symbol of resistance for many people, particularly those who feel their voices are not being heard. While I do not condone the practice, I understand why people feel the need to use it as a form of protest,” he says.

He notes that despite the significant environmental and human impact of teargas, the Kenyan government has been slow to act.

“While the burning of tyres is illegal under Kenyan law, the practice continues to be widespread, particularly in informal settlements where there is little regulation or oversight,” Nyamori reveals.

Jacky Mugo, Environmental Safeguard and Restoration Specialist in Tana River County, says open combustion of tyres releases harmful pollutants that have significant environmental and climate change impact.

She notes that these pollutants, in combination with greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, contribute to global warming and climate change, causing shrinking mountain glaciers and rising sea levels.

To address these issues, Mugo recommends major regulatory interventions to limit teargas use and uncontrolled tyre combustion.

In addition, Mugo recommends sustainable scrap tyre management practices such as efficient recycling to produce alternative energy and rubber by-products.

“As a society, we need to take responsibility for managing our waste tyres sustainably,” says Mugo.

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