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How Dangerous is it Really to Live Near a Landfill? (And How Near is Too Near?)

The U.S. population produced more than 236 million tons of garbage in 2003 (about 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)). All of this waste gets put into landfills, which are decreasing in numbers (from 8,000 in 1988 to 1,767 in 2002) but gaining in size.


Landfills produce leachate, a toxic liquid squeezed out of the garbage that contains a slew of chemicals.

Today's landfills are significantly bigger than they were just two decades ago, and increasing numbers are reaching full capacity. When a landfill is full, it gets capped and usually planted with grass, the end result looking like a large, grassy hill, with small chimneys to releases gasses. A closed landfill does not look particularly threatening, but evidence is pouring in that there's more going on than meets the eye.

How Landfills Work

Trash is compacted into tight blocks called cells before being deposited in the landfill. It's then covered with multiple layers, including a thick covering of soil, at the end of each day. Once the landfill reaches capacity, it's covered with a plastic material, then soil and grass.

"Most U.S. landfills are called dry tombs," says Steve Wall of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Ideally, landfills are carefully engineered and monitored systems that keep household garbage dry so they don't contaminate surrounding water or air."

Safeguards are in place to keep toxins in the landfill, and out of surrounding communities, however, "people are concerned because trash inside lasts for generations," Wall says.

Landfills Leak Toxins

Landfills produce significant amounts of methane gas, along with leachate, a toxic liquid that comes out of all that compressed trash. Leachate is full of organic and inorganic pollutants, including toluene, phenols, benzene, ammonia, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated pesticides, heavy metals and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Landfills often have pipes designed to route and collect leachate to keep it from contaminating ground water (which can become your tap water). However, even the best collection systems and landfill liners inevitably deteriorate and leak, according to the EPA:

"No liner ... can keep all liquids out of the ground for all time. Eventually liners will either degrade, tear, or crack and will allow liquids to migrate out of the unit. Some have argued that liners are devices that provide a perpetual seal against any migration from a waste management unit. EPA has concluded that the more reasonable assumption, based on what is known about the pressures placed on liners over time, is that any liner will begin to leak eventually."

If and when a landfill does leak, toxins are allowed to escape directly into the environment, where they can contaminate air, water and soil.

Health Risks Linked to Landfills


If you have a choice, it's probably best to locate your home at least two miles from a landfill.

Studies have shown possible increased risks of certain types of cancer, including bladder, brain and leukemia, among people who live near landfills.

Further, a study by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine also found that babies born to mothers who live near landfills have a greater risk of birth defects.

"There was a significantly overall increased risk of neural-tube defects, malformations of the cardiac septa (hole-in-the-heart), and malformations of the great arteries and veins in residents near the landfill sites in our study," the researchers said.

And, a recent study found that living near a landfill could expose residents to chemicals that can reduce immune system function and lead to an increased risk of infections.

As opposed to children living in clean areas, the study found that "children living near to waste sites, whether landfills or contaminated bodies of water, are hospitalized more frequently with acute respiratory infections, said Dr. David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment, at the State University of New York at Albany. Children living near waste sites also had increased rates of hospitalization for asthma.

Carpenter said the extent to which toxic landfill contaminants suppress the immune system has been "underestimated."

"While our specific study focused on air transport of the contaminants, they are also in our food," Carpenter said, "and the effect of exposure should not be different whether it is via food or air. So we really need to get these chemicals out of our environment to the greatest degree possible."

Ideally, we would all live in pristine environments, free from pollution of all kinds. Realistically, it may be worthwhile to avoid living near landfills, if you have a choice. If you don't, try to stay more than two miles away, as the health effects, at least in the birth defects study, lessened beyond this point.

Recommended Reading

What are the Dangers of Living Near Cell Phone Towers?

Common & Controversial Pollutant in Drinking Water, TCE, Linked Strongly to Cancer


Reuters September 8, 2006

EPA: Municipal Solid Waste

Rachel's Democracy and Health News #848 March 30, 2006

BBC News

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