Landfill 'burps' release 'high levels' of forever chemicals (2024)

Landfills across the US ‘burp’ toxic gases in the air as waste decomposes, introducing a flood of airborne forever chemicals into the atmosphere and poisoning the air we breathe.

Forever chemicals, named so because they can survive in the environment and the human body for months or even years, are known to increase risks of thyroid, kidney, and testicular cancers, heart disease, and liver damage.

The chemicals, also known as PFAS, are ubiquitous. They have permeated the water and food supplies. They line food wrappers, nonstick cookware, and water-repellant clothing, make up firefighting foam, and make certain clothes stain-resistant.

Researchers tested the air around three landfill sites in Florida that had been filled with PFAS-laden decomposing food, clothing, cosmetics, and wastewater sludge.

They found 13 different types of forever chemicals were circulating in gas emitted, polluting the surrounding air and potentially harming anyone breathing it in even miles away.

Researchers from Yale University and the University of Florida already knew water drains through waste material in a landfill and leaches into groundwater and surface water sources. This is known as leachate.

They aimed to understand how this PFAS-laden water seepage compares to the composition and mobility of PFAS in the toxic gases emitted from landfills. Once PFAS enters the air, it can spread widely, even across continents.

Researchers worked to determine which pathway — leachate or landfill gas— contributes more significantly to the release of PFAS from landfills.

They went to three different sites in Florida and erected air pumps to draw out gas.

The pump contained a cartridge filled with resin that traps compounds floating in the air. They then took those cartridges to the lab to isolate the compounds trapped in the resin.

Burped gas is mostly made up of methane and carbon dioxide, but these scientists also discovered the gas was full of forever chemicals.

Most of the PFAS they found belonged to a class of compounds called fluorotelomer alcohols. Like other PFAS compounds, fluorotelomer alcohols have a high fluorine content, which allows them to remain in the environment for months or years.

The concentration of fluorine in landfill gas ranged from 32 to 76 percent of the total mass of PFAS, compared to 24 to 68 percent in landfill leachate.

Even under conservative assumptions, the mass of PFAS leaving via landfill gas was comparable to or greater than that of leachate.

Researchers installed air pumps at landfill sites to collect PFAS-laden gas

According to the researchers: ‘These findings suggest that landfill gas, a less scrutinized byproduct, serves as a major pathway for the mobility of PFAS from landfills.’

Landfill leachate, the liquid that drains from landfills, is typically collected and treated to prevent further contamination in the environment. However, landfill gas, which, includes methane and PFAS, is released into the atmosphere untreated and uncontrolled.

The study suggests that while pollution mitigation efforts typically focus on PFAS in the drinking water supply, the gas released from these mass disposal sites should be included in future plans to reduce exposure to the chemicals.

Some landfills burn these gases or capture them for energy, but researchers argue these methods may not be effective at removing airborne contaminants.

PFAS pose a laundry list of health risks ranging from cancer to organ damage. The chemicals lodge themselves in bodily tissue where they can survive without breaking down for more than seven years.

In 2023, doctors from Mount Sinai hospital in New York tested blood samples from people with and without thyroid cancer and found patients with the disease were 56 percent more likely to have levels of PFAS chemicals in their system.

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PFAS also cause inflammation in the body, leading to DNA damage in thyroid cells. This can result in genetic mutations that drive the creation of cancer cells.

Meanwhile, researchers from the University of California San Francisco, University of Southern California and University of Michigan showed that women with a higher exposure to PFAS were twice as likely to report a previous melanoma diagnosis than women in the lowest group of exposure to the chemicals.

The study also found a link between PFAS and a past diagnosis of uterine cancer and women with higher exposure also had a marginal increase in odds of previous ovarian cancer.

And PFAS can wreak havoc on the body’s balance of hormones that govern fertility and reproduction.

American and Singaporean researchers reported last year that women with several types of PFAS in their blood who were trying to conceive had an up to 40 percent lower chance of getting pregnant and delivering a live baby.

The results of the experiment were published in the journalEnvironmental Science & Technology Letters.

Landfill 'burps' release 'high levels' of forever chemicals (2024)

FAQs

Landfill 'burps' release 'high levels' of forever chemicals? ›

Many municipal landfills “burp” gas from decomposing organic matter rather than letting it build up. And burps from buried waste containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances

per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS or PFASs) are a group of synthetic organofluorine chemical compounds that have multiple fluorine atoms attached to an alkyl chain; there are 7 million such chemicals according to PubChem.
https://en.wikipedia.org › Per-_and_polyfluoroalkyl_substances
(PFAS) can release these “forever chemicals” into the air, say researchers in ACS' Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

Is landfill gas harmful to humans? ›

Short-term exposures (typically up to about two weeks) to elevated levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide in air can cause coughing, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headache, nausea, and breathing difficulties. These effects usually go away once the exposure is stopped.

What type of gas is released in landfills? ›

Landfill gas (LFG) is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material in landfills. LFG is composed of roughly 50 percent methane (the primary component of natural gas), 50 percent carbon dioxide (CO2) and a small amount of non-methane organic compounds.

How toxic are landfills? ›

Although modern landfills are designed to keep toxic trash contained, leaks do happen. Therefore, landfills are still dangerous to the environment and human health. The methane that is released due to the decomposing waste is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change.

Is it unhealthy to live near a landfill? ›

Cancer and other respiratory allergies have been reported by communities living closer to landfill sites. Endotoxins are the most powerful proinflammatory component present in bioaerosols, which are components on the cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria.

How far should you live from a landfill? ›

What are the risks of living near toxic waste sites? Research shows adverse health effects most likely occur within a 1.8 mile boundary around a Superfund site.

What does landfill gas smell like? ›

Hydrogen sulfide, dimethyl sulfide, and mercaptans are naturally occurring gases that give the landfill gas mixture its rotten-egg odor . These gases produce a very strong rotten-egg smell—even at very low concentrations or may smell like natural gas.

How do landfills affect human health? ›

The by-products of solid wastes deposited in a landfill adversely affect the surrounding environment and communities near landfill sites. Communities have immediate negative impacts from pollutants that arise from landfilling organic waste, like nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that cause heart and lung disease.

What are the effects of methane gas on humans? ›

High levels of methane can reduce the amount of oxygen breathed from the air. This can result in mood changes, slurred speech, vision problems, memory loss, nausea, vomiting, facial flushing and headache. In severe cases, there may be changes in breathing and heart rate, balance problems, numbness, and unconsciousness.

Which gas is harmful to human health? ›

Carbon monoxide is harmful because it binds to hemoglobin in the blood, reducing the ability of blood to carry oxygen. This interferes with oxygen delivery to the body's organs. The most common effects of CO exposure are fatigue, headaches, confusion, and dizziness due to inadequate oxygen delivery to the brain.

What state has the most toxic waste dumps? ›

As of August 17, 2022, there were 1,329 Superfund sites in the National Priorities List in the United States. Forty-three additional sites have been proposed for entry on the list, and 452 sites have been cleaned up and removed from the list. New Jersey, California, and Pennsylvania have the most sites.

What is the most toxic type of waste? ›

Radioactive waste from nuclear generators is a popular choice for “worst waste” thanks to how long they linger once disposed of.

Why is landfill so bad? ›

Landfill is bad as it contributes to many environmental and health problems. Much of the rubbish thrown away in landfill sites takes many years to break down. As waste decomposes in landfill it can release toxins and create leachate that pollutes land, ground, and water.

What's worse than a landfill? ›

This shows that incineration is 80% worse than landfills for the climate, and that other pollutants that directly harm human health are 60% worse from incineration. Emissions of nitrogen oxides that trigger asthma attacks are 105 times as bad as landfills.

How far does landfill smell travel? ›

How far can landfill gas travel? It is difficult to predict the distance that landfill gas will travel because so many factors affect its ability to migrate underground; however, travel distances greater than 1,500 feet have been observed.

Is it safe to build top of landfill? ›

One problem is the inherent instability of the ground. As waste decomposes, the ground can settle. If the project atop the landfill is a golf course, that's not a big problem. But if the developer is putting up office buildings or apartments, engineers must find ways to stabilize the area.

How long does landfill gas last? ›

Landfills usually produce appreciable amounts of gas within 1 to 3 years. Peak gas production usually occurs 5 to 7 years after wastes are dumped. Almost all gas is produced within 20 years after waste is dumped; however, small quantities of gas may continue to be emitted from a landfill for 50 or more years.

Is landfill gas clean? ›

Landfill methane can be tapped, captured, and used as a fairly clean energy source for generating electricity or heat, rather than leaking into the air or being dispersed as waste. The climate benefit is twofold: prevent landfill emissions and displace coal, oil, or natural gas that might otherwise be used.

How far does landfill gas travel? ›

How far can landfill gas travel? It is difficult to predict the distance that landfill gas will travel because so many factors affect its ability to migrate underground; however, travel distances greater than 1,500 feet have been observed.

What is the most harmful gas to the environment? ›

Major greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various synthetic chemicals. Carbon dioxide is widely reported as the most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas because it currently accounts for the greatest portion of the warming associated with human activities.

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