By Ean Peyton, Underwriting Assistant
While the population continues to expand, the amount of waste we as a society produce continues to grow. Although there are many alternatives to simply “throwing our trash away,” landfills continue to be utilized for disposal of non-reusable waste. Most landfills we think of today are Municipal Solid Waste Landfills that hold household waste. While many modern landfills have been redesigned, older landfills typically lack proper lining and drainage. Apart from being smelly and unsightly, landfills have major impacts on the atmosphere, groundwater, human health, and biodiversity.
One of the main gases produced by decomposing garbage at an ordinary landfill is methane, a highly flammable gas that is harmful to the atmosphere and ozone layers. According to EPA studies, “methane is 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat from the sun and landfills also account for 25% of all methane releases linked to human activity.” In a time where copious amounts of carbon dioxide are already being released into the atmosphere, the release of a gas that can heat the globe much more dramatically could eventually be detrimental to the environment. In some rare instances, high levels of methane gas present at landfill sites have even resulted in explosions. Carbon dioxide is also a major gas released from most landfills along with ammonia, sulfides, and even ground-level ozone, contributing to climate change. According to the New York Department of Health, “while these gas levels typically peak at around 5-7 years, landfills can produce these hazardous gases for up to 50 years later.” These gases are released by bacteria that break down waste and the amounts of these gases usually “depend on the amount of waste, the age of the landfill, the oxygen content within the site, the amount of moisture present, and the temperature,” according to the EPA. A larger, older landfill with larger amounts of oxygen and moisture in a warmer climate is going to typically emit more of these gases than a smaller, more modern landfill with a weaker oxygen content and less moisture in a colder climate. While typically less significant, dust and particulate matter from larger landfills have also been reported to enter the atmosphere, causing cloudiness and further impairing air quality.
Groundwater can also be affected tremendously by landfills. In many such sites, due to the large amounts of household cleaners and other potentially hazardous materials being disposed of, the sites can become concentrated with toxic liquids. These cleaners and other agents can mix with precipitation over time and form what is known as leachate. According to Environment Victoria in British Columbia, leachate(also known as “garbage soup”) is a “highly toxic liquid formed when waste breaks down in the landfill and water filters through that waste.” Toxins can include lead, sulfates, sulfides, and other noxious agents. Leachate seeps into the soil and can actually be absorbed into underground aquifers if linings aren’t properly utilized and if the affected aquifer is closer to the ground’s surface than average. In most cases, however, leachate is washed by stormwater into nearby water bodies where the highly toxic chemicals can affect wildlife and impact human well-being.
There are many direct and indirect exposures to human health that can be caused by landfills. According to the EPA, “exposures to human health can come from air, soil, and groundwater.” When the waste in a landfill breaks down, the process of decomposition takes oxygen out of the air. People living close to or working at a landfill can experience fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and even unconsciousness in rare cases due to reduced oxygen levels. Large methane releases from these sites can also cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, nausea, sleep difficulties, chest pains, and asthma aggravations. Heavy metals that are washed away by leachate into nearby waterways and distributed into drinking water can cause birth defects and low birth weight along with genetic mutations. Increased presence of vermin (birds, rats, rodents, flies, mosquitos) found at landfills can cause many types of diseases. Respiratory and digestive diseases along with more serious conditions such as rabies and typhoid fever, can be linked to the organisms that might inhabit landfills.
According to the EPA, landfills result in the loss of between 30-300 species per 100 acres due to the exposures that affect surrounding wildlife. The clearing of land required to create a new landfill results in habitat destruction for many organisms in the area, pushing organisms away or outright depleting the area of those species. Once a landfill starts to be utilized, gases released can have direct and indirect impacts on nearby organisms along with species across the globe. Like humans, other organisms neighboring or inhabiting landfills are also affected by respiratory illnesses, digestive diseases, and even death from the noxious gases emitted. Because methane and carbon dioxide are incredibly successful in trapping the sun’s heat and warming the planet, it is argued that landfills are partly to blame for habitat destruction and species extinction due to climate change across the globe. From polar bears in the arctic to coral reefs in the Caribbean, climate change continues to affect organisms in all parts of the world. Leachate also impacts wildlife exposed to its toxicity. In older landfills with dated drainage and poor linings, leachate can seep into the soil and groundwater, affecting surrounding vegetation and organisms that would consume the now toxic flora. Wildlife can also be affected if the contaminated groundwater is used as a drinking source.
While landfills continue to be rather necessary for most of the world, the hazards these sites can pose to the environment, humans, and surrounding wildlife can be especially harmful. PartnerOne Environmental offers A+ rated Site Pollution Liability coverage for landfills and other disposal centers. If you would like more information on landfill exposures and the coverages your site might require, please feel free to contact us.
Information for this article was obtained from the following sources:
Aderemi, Adeolu O, and Tope C Falade. Environmental and Health Concerns Associated with the Open Dumping of Municipal Solid Waste: A Lagos, Nigeria Experience. American Journal of Environmental Engineering , 2012, pp. 160–165, Environmental and Health Concerns Associated with the Open Dumping of Municipal Solid Waste: A Lagos, Nigeria Experience.