EIA Challenges Landfill Odor Study

For the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA), Washington, D.C., leadership in the waste industry means serving members through active participation in the political process.

To that end, the EIA's Landfill Institute spends much of its time commenting on studies that federal and state agencies use to pass laws and establish regulations. On Oct. 29, 1999, the Landfill Institute, comprised of private waste management industry landfill owners and operators, commented on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) report, "A Panel Study of Acute Respiratory Outcomes, Staten Island, N.Y." The study, released Aug. 29, 1999, attempted to determine if odor and air emissions from Fresh Kills Landfill were tied to daily changes in respiratory health among people living near the landfill.

The study was conducted in the summer when researchers determined that landfill emissions were highest and potential confounders were at their lowest. For six weeks, 148 asthmatics kept a daily diary of their symptoms.

At the same time, ATSDR researchers took ambient air measurements consisting of hydrogen sulfide, wind direction and odor, all of which researchers hypothesized were indicators of landfill emissions. Researchers also used measurements collected by other government agencies to determine levels of particulate matter, ozone, pollen and meteorological data because of their respiratory health affects.

Variables ATSDR reviewed included respiratory symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and changes in participants' peak air flow (i.e. lung function) between the morning and evening hours.

Results showed a relationship between self-reports of odor and measures of respiratory symptoms and peak air flow, which was stronger among people ages 30 to 49, and those who worked on Staten Island. Odor seemed to affect the respiratory health of participants. However, hydrogen sulfide levels didn't seem related to either respiratory symptoms or peak air flow. The findings suggested that the perception of odors, such as garbage or rotten eggs, was associated with a worsening of respiratory health among people with asthma who lived near Fresh Kills Landfill.

Although the findings addressed concerns about respiratory health risks from landfill emissions, EIA's Landfill Institute felt the study failed to meet its goals because researchers didn't control or investigate all the variables that could cause respiratory problems, such as oil refineries upwind from the study area, humidity or cold air. Also, control populations were not established with similar environmental factors absent.

Thus, the correlation between odor and respiratory function was doubtful. The Landfill Institute suggested that the study could have been motivated politically by people interested in closing the landfill, rather than a scientific study on whether the landfill caused health problems. This information was based on the missing research elements and the failure to use a control group.

For example, 25 percent of the participants lived with a smoker. The American Lung Association, New York, states that second-hand smoke is known to aggravate asthma symptoms, and the effects of one cigarette can linger in a home for seven days.

The study also used ozone and particulate matter as indicators of landfill emissions. However, researchers did not investigate other pollutants emitted from area industries including petroleum refineries, petrochemical plants and an international airport.

Furthermore, participants were located in two census tracts next to the landfill. None was living in a control group area, but one could have been established across the river from the landfill in Elisabeth Town, N.J. Without examining these factors, the study could not conclude that a health problem was caused by the landfill. Because these types of studies have far-reaching effects on the waste management industry, a strong trade association that tracks and comments on issues that impact its members is critical. In the near future, the Landfill Institute will comment on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's reopening of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Subtitle D Rules (40 CFR part 258). It also will comment on modifying the liquids restriction requirements so leachate recirculation and liquid additions for bioreactor landfills are possible.

Contact Ed Repa at (202) 364-3773 for information on the Landfill Institute's programs or to become a member.