Garbage and Health

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Naples, Italy, faced a major public health crisis. Piles of garbage were accumulating throughout its streets and suburbs. As the mounds got higher and higher, the smell of rotting garbage became intense. Rats and other vectors found food and sustenance.

Miscreants began setting the piles on fire, creating additional health hazards. Some people dumped their garbage illegally in parks or other locations away from their houses.

The crisis was caused by area landfills being full. Neapolitan authorities had tried to site new disposal capacity, but their efforts were unsuccessful. Although more than 45 waste-to-energy facilities are operating in Italy, local opposition prevented their construction in Naples. Sort of makes you wonder how to spell NIMBY in Italian. Eventually, Naples was able to cut a deal with disposal facilities in other parts of Italy and ship their garbage to those sites. They also had new incentive to find closer, less expensive disposal options.

Here in America, we pretty much have forgotten that garbage is first and foremost a public health issue. In fact, we worry so little about our trash that we keep it in our houses in mini-transfer stations we call wastebaskets. Of course, if the garbageman doesn't collect our trash on time we get angry, partially because trash collection is so reliable.

The reality is that we won the public health battle on garbage many years ago. Open, burning dumps are illegal. The days of unregulated and uncontrolled incinerators spewing half-baked trash into the sky are over. We manage our garbage quietly and effectively.

It wasn't always this way. Our understanding of the relationship between trash and disease is barely 150 years old. Back in the 1840s in Great Britain, the Chadwick Commission issued a report showing the relationship between a bad environment and disease. The report was pioneering, but it took another two decades, with discoveries by Louis Pasteur and subsequent bacteriologists, before we understood how festering trash caused disease.

Even now, we sometimes forget how easy it is to transmit germs. This was vividly brought home for me when I attended a conference in Toronto during the height of the SARS epidemic. I couldn't turn around without seeing yet another reminder about washing one's hands to prevent the transmission of germs.

Because we have been so successful at winning the public health battle with garbage, we can turn our attention to finding ways to reduce, reuse and recycle our trash instead of sending it all to landfills or incinerators.

But we need to be careful. The June issue of Governing magazine contained a sobering story discussing underfunded local government public health programs. In some cases, core programs that detect new disease outbreaks, track their spread and prevent their transmission barely hold their own at budget time. Public health won't be as sexy as other budget priorities until people get hurt.

We need to keep and improve our recycling programs. The public wants them. But let's always remember that solid waste is first and foremost a public health issue. If we ever forget this, the public will quickly remind us.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.