Landfill air pollution may be as unhealthy as it is unpleasant, study finds

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Christopher Heaney

Chris Heaney

Despite increased regulations on municipal solid waste since 1990, many people who live near landfills continue to report health problems associated with foul odors, pests, polluted water and traffic.  A new study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published online this month in Environmental Research, finds that potentially hazardous foul odors are commonly reported by neighbors of the Orange County, North Carolina regional landfill.

At times when landfill odor was present, residents reported more respiratory problems and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat.  Researchers validated odor reports by measuring hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas that is produced by decomposition of landfill wastes.

The study was conducted by researchers from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health in partnership with the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association in Orange County.  The regional landfill is located in the historically African-American Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood and has received garbage from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the county and other areas since 1972.  Since that time, residents have organized to oppose its expansion. The county recently reversed its plans to add a waste transfer station in the low-income neighborhood, yet continues to haul municipal waste to the landfill.

Neighbors and their supporters believe placement of the landfill stemmed from environmental racism. Located in a neighborhood in which residents are mostly lower income and African-American, the site receives garbage from more affluent communities. Additionally, the neighboring towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro only partially have annexed the community and do not provide water, sewer or other basic services available in nearby areas that have been annexed.

“We are glad to see a scientific study that shows how our neighborhood has been burdened for so long,” said Minister Robert L. Campbell, president of the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association and co-author of the study. “It’s not fair for wealthy communities that create the majority of waste to continue to avoid the consequences by dumping in a diverse, low-income neighborhood.”

Campbell has worked with faculty and student groups at UNC, especially in the public health school, to investigate water quality, air pollution from the landfill, and associated health risks. In November 2009, Campbell was invited to the White House to brief national environmental and health officials about findings and concerns. He was accompanied by Christopher D. Heaney, PhD, who worked with other UNC researchers to investigate residents’ questions about air and water contamination. Heaney, an epidemiologist and W.K. Kellogg Health Scholar at UNC, led the study.

“We never could have conducted this research without a strong partnership with community residents,” Heaney said.  “Building on work that public health students initiated in the Rogers-Eubanks community, we were able to place air pollution monitors in the neighborhood and obtain daily records of odors and symptoms.”

The study followed the health of 23 landfill neighbors over two-week periods.  Residents sat outside twice a day for five minutes to observe odors and report on symptoms and quality of life.  At the same time, hydrogen sulfide concentrations were measured nearby. Although hourly average hydrogen sulfide levels were low (between 0-2.30 parts per billion), the chemical is a marker of the presence of a more complex mixture of landfill gasses.

“This study highlights our experience with an almost unbearable smell that has affected our daily quality of life for nearly 40 years,” said David Caldwell, project manager for the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association and co-author of the study. “I hope that this documented research can help shed light on problems of odor and air pollution in communities near landfills across the state and the country.”

Earlier research by Jennifer Norton, PhD, and colleagues showed that solid waste facilities across the state of North Carolina are disproportionately located in low-income communities of color.  Norton conducted the research as an epidemiology doctoral student at UNC and now works with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Caldwell is a community expert and partner on another project at HPDP.

“The new study helps show how this discriminatory pattern affects people’s daily lives,” said Heaney.

In addition to Heaney, Campbell and Caldwell, authors of the study include Steve Wing, PhD, epidemiology associate professor, and Karin Yeatts, PhD, epidemiology research assistant professor, both with the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health; David Richardson, alumnus of the UNC Institute for the Environment’s Bachelor of Arts program; and Barbara Hopkins of the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association.

The published study is available online.

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UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or ramona_dubose@unc.edu .

 

 

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