The world’s longest burning tyre fire smouldered in a Welsh valley for fifteen years before it was finally put out in 2004.
The worst industrial fire you’ve never heard of, it was started by arsonists in 1989 at a tyre dump in Heyope near Powys and spread to a total of 10 million tightly packed together tyres across ten miles for a decade and a half.
In the process it spewed toxic smoke that has a deleterious effect on people, animals and the environment for miles around. It left behind it an oily substance packed with heavy metals and poisons that leached into the surrounding earth and groundwater.
The Heyhope fire is a distressing example of why you should never burn old tyres. And the scariest thing about it is that every country in the world has similar mountains of dumped tyres waiting in landfill.
There’s no doubt that the invention of the automobile has been a wondrous thing – it’s brought our communities and workplaces closer and made transportation faster and safer. But the problem of what to do with discarded tyres is a far less convenient side effect – and it's causing substantial environmental issues worldwide (long term respiratory effects, genetic defects and death).
Roughly twenty per cent of old tyres are burned as a "replacement fuel" in super hot furnaces while manufacturing of cement. This emits a dark, thick smoke filled with ultra-fine particles into the air that can settle deep in the lungs. The particles contain cyanide, carbon monoxide, butadiene, benzene and styrene (all recognised human carcinogens).
While cement companies argue burning tyres as fuel reduces their environmental footprint by cutting down on fossil fuel usage, environmentalists claim it results in sulphur dioxide emissions rising by a factor of ten and dust particles by five hundred per cent. There is also some question that burning chlorinated elements in tyres releases further carcinogenic dioxins into the surrounding air.
Babies, children, the elderly and immune suppressed are especially susceptible to the toxic pollutants burning tyres emits including increased incidences of life-threatening asthma and heart disease. Contamination can be passed from breast milk to baby, and fine particles exuded from burning tyres has been found to cause excess pediatric mortality, hospitalisations and cancer.
Tyres are designed for indestructibility on the road – and that's the very root of the issue. Forget about lasting a few years pounding tarmac: your average tyre mountain contains a mix of rubber, carbon black and steel that won't biodegrade for thousands of years.
That leads to further health concerns include the slow breakdown of toxic additives used to make tyres tough, including zinc oxide (which can cause lung inflammation, cancer and fetal damage), chromium (skin ulcerations), lead (developmental delays, abdominal pain, neurological changes, irritability and death), copper (psychological damage and Alzheimer's), cadmium (respiratory problems, renal failure and cancer) and sulphur dioxide (inhalation causes long term respiratory effects, genetic defects and death).
Like Britain, many countries struggle with what to do with their rubber tyre mountains. Australia has to deal with a vast twenty-five million of them thrown out every year – most illegally dumped, exported (so we shuffle the problem out of sight and on to a third-world country) or stockpiled.
It’s time to stop burning and stockpiling tyres and focussing on ecologically and human friendly ways to deal with our mess.