Expert Says Italian Health Study Doesn’t Apply to U.S. Landfills

Expert Says Italian Health Study Doesn’t Apply to U.S. Landfills

A recently released study out of Italy suggests that living near a landfill can be hazardous to your health; however, a U.S. waste and recycling industry official disputes the findings.

According to research published in May in the International Journal of Epidemiology, people living within about three miles of a landfill are at risk. The study was conducted by researchers at the Department of Epidemiology, Lazio Regional Health Service and Lazio Environmental Protection Agency, both located in Rome, Italy.

They studied more than 240,000 people living near nine landfills in the Lazio region of Italy from 1996 to 2008. The results showed respiratory issues detected, even lung cancer in some cases, due to high levels of hydrogen sulphide (H2S).

According to a release from the Oxford University Press, researchers said “the evidence on the health of those living near landfills is still controversial. Most of the published studies only use aggregate health data and do not adjust for social-economic status. We have used a residential cohort approach to attempt to overcome these limitations.”

However, Frank Caponi, the head of air quality engineering for the Los Angeles County Sanitation District (LACSD), says his initial reaction to the study is that it doesn’t tell the story for U.S. landfills. The landfills studied are based in Italy, which raises several issues. Moreover, not enough information was provided on those landfills used in the study and making it difficult to fully evaluate.

Also, he says, there are inherent limitations to epidemiological studies that should be recognized, which could be minimized if a more complete assessment of other health causes were studied and eliminated.

“The study goes through no detail of the environmental framework under which the landfills operate, nor does the study provide any indication of what type of environmental management takes place at these landfills,” he says.

Caponi manages the group that handles all air quality compliance activities (includes permitting, preparing health risk assessments, inventory, regulatory lobbying, etc.) for the agency’s solid waste management facilities, and wastewater management activities.

The LACSD, based in Whittier, Calif., is one of the largest municipal landfill operators in the country, as well as operating waste-to-energy facilities, material recovery facilities and transfer stations. The agency handles wastewater for more than 78 cities in Los Angeles County in 11 wastewater treatment plants or approximately 7 million people.

Some of the questions raised by this study including daily waste tonnages, length of operation, landfill gas collection, how H2S is estimated and how conservative the model was for the study, Caponi says.

“In my 35 years of experience in this industry, very few studies of this type are ever done because they are difficult to do and the results are hard to interpret. More specifically, it is hard to pick out the health impacts of one source from the background, especially in urban areas,” he says. “Typically, you may see this type of study with a superfund type site that has grossly inflated emissions when compared to a normally operated landfill. With this type of study, the larger amount of emissions may create a health impact that can be singled out. However, in this study a causal relationship is developed between the surrogate (H2S) and community health issues, but no attempt (or it seems no attempt was made) to adjust for the other reasons the subject health effects could occur -- smoking , diet, occupation, etc.).”

Caponi says this is standard practice for any epidemiological study. Without this analysis, the results are simply casual at best, only indicating that further work needs to be done to validate the results.

Direct comparisons cannot be made to U.S. landfills because of the missing information, according to Caponi.

“However, what can be said is that U.S. landfills are highly regulated,” he adds. “Larger landfills in the U.S. must comply with the Federal New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) that regulates when landfill gas collection systems must be installed, the surface emission levels that must be met, and performance of the landfill gas management devices. This regulation has been in place since 1996 and is currently going through additional revisions.”

Caponi says the federal regulations level the playing field so that all U.S. landfills operate at a certain levels and standards. In addition, states and local air districts may have their own regulations that go beyond federal requirements.

“The most dramatic example of that is the State of California that has the most regulated landfills in the country. Using California as an example also gets to the question of the health impacts of landfills in the U.S.,” he says.

Caponi says that although comparisons are difficult to make with this study and U.S. landfills, it can serve as a first step.

“To more fully analyze or validate the results, a California type health risk evaluation should be conducted. These assessments are very conservative. Thus, if the assessment showed the Italian landfills to be within the acceptable health thresholds, it would leave the subject study suspect,” he says.

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