Toxic burning in Melbourne suburb
I have been exposed to secondhand smoke my whole life. I was born in the 60s where my father smoked around me in my first year of life. He put down his cigarettes after reading about the health harms of tobacco smoking in a Reader’s Digest article for the first time. This simple educational publication made a huge impact on my family’s life.
Then in my childhood in the 70s it was a weekend event to run into the house and shut doors and windows as our neighbours disposed of their polystyrene fruit & vegetable boxes by burning them in the incinerator. My parents never made a complaint as neighbour relations were paramount. The year incinerators were banned in Victoria a relief swept over us that we would never again be exposed to such toxicity.
Fast forward 40 years, I am living in Glen Eira with a family of my own and my daughters are the same age I was as the young child who endured incinerators. Though I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, residential woodsmoke pollution has been with me throughout. When new neighbours moved in next door 6 years ago and that same hellish cloud of acrid smoke blew across our garden and into our house, that same panic arose: run into the house and shut the doors and windows and wait for the respiratory assault to end.
Unlike the incinerations in the 70s, we found our home engulfed in thick acrid smoke not once a week, but multiple nights per week, from 5pm onwards till past midnight. Our neighbours entertained themselves around a fire pit burning painted and treated waste wood from construction sites, a benefit of their trade.
This was the beginning of what was to become a 3-year nightmare to protect our air. Even though Glen Eira has an open fires law that prohibits fire pits without a permit, my family and I were not protected by this law.
When I contacted Council, the Civic Compliance Unit (CCU) said they could not come out to inspect because the fires were occurring out of hours and so I was asked to submit written, photographic and video evidence. For 6 months I refused to take the photos and videos of my neighbour’s burning as it crossed a personal ethical line. We continued to suffer from the chronic secondhand smoke exposure, so I succumbed in desperation. The council officer could not tell me if the visual evidence he was asking me to provide was legal to obtain, if not ethical.
After struggling to interpret the Victorian Surveillance Devices Act 1999 I sought the help of a lawyer. The lawyer herself was not familiar with the Act, but ultimately confirmed that the act of videoing my neighbours was not illegal. Regardless, each occasion that I was forced to take clandestine footage was personally harrowing and frightening, causing me great emotional distress and shame. Yet, even after going to great lengths, providing ample evidence, the Council still would/could not abate the fires.
Additionally, as many others find when making a smoke complaint, the offending resident is emboldened in the knowledge that councils are reluctant regarding enforcement. This usually means they not only continue to burn, but also to escalate the scale of the burning as retribution. In our case a bonfire was built using thickly painted posts and palings from the fence of a demolition across the road. Ultimately, we were also verbally harassed and subjected to willful property damage for complaining. I no longer felt safe in my own home, and began to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress for which I had to seek costly professional help.
We also bore the expense of adding surveillance cameras as a safety measure. This distressing experience also caused us to withdraw socially as our home was no longer an inviting place. Our neighbour’s form of entertainment meant we could no longer enjoy our own property freely and share our place with our friends. This heightened state of stress lasted for 3 years. The burning only ended when I took the courageous step of threatening to take the matter to the Magistrate’s Court, with legal backing.
The mental and emotional toll, as well as physical impacts of this experience, still plague me personally — and drive me to advocate for clean air for others who suffer the same anguish and neglect.
It’s not easy going public with a personal story, but when supporting others, I am repeatedly astonished at how their personal stories mirror mine. When you hear others’ stories you feel less alone. It reveals how smoke pollution goes beyond damaging health, but has ramifications for all areas of a person’s life, complex and intertwined, ongoing — and costly in every way.