Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#90 - Leachate From Municipal Dumps Has Same Toxicity As Leachate From Hazardous Waste Dumps, 14-Aug-1988

In a new study, researchers at Texas A&M University have compared
leachate from municipal landfills with leachate from hazardous waste
landfills and they report, "...There is ample evidence that the
municipal waste landfill leachates contain toxic chemicals in
sufficient concentration to be potentially as harmful as leachate from
industrial waste landfills." Specifically, the Texas researchers
compared leachate from several municipal landfills with leachate from
the notorious Love Canal landfill (and other hazardous waste landfills,
such as Kin-Buc in Edison, NJ) and they found the leachates similar in
their cancer-causing potential.

Leachate is the liquid that is produced when rain falls on a landfill,
sinks into the wastes, and picks up chemicals as it seeps downward.
Industries creating "hazardous wastes" (as legally defined under
federal law) may not send those wastes to municipal landfills, but must
instead send them to special hazardous waste landfills.

When a new municipal landfill is proposed, advocates of the project
always emphasize that "no hazardous wastes will enter this landfill."
The Texas study shows that even though municipal landfills may not
legally receive "hazardous" wastes, the leachate they produce is as
dangerous as the leachate from hazardous waste landfills.

Dr. Kirk Brown and Dr. K.C. Donnelly at Texas A&M, authors of the new
study, examined data on the composition of leachate from 58 landfills.
The data they reviewed showed 113 different toxic chemicals in leachate
from municipal landfills and 72 toxic chemicals in leachate from
hazardous waste landfills. The abundance of toxics in municipal
landfills probably occurs because the entire spectrum of consumer
products ends up in municipal landfills, whereas hazardous waste
landfills serve a limited number of industries within a region.

The actual source of the toxic chemicals in municipal landfills is not
known precisely. Under federal law (RCRA Subtitle C) each "small
quantity generator" can send up to 2640 pounds per year of legally-
hazardous chemicals to municipal landfills. In 1980, the EPA [U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency] estimated that 600,000 tons per year
of legally-hazardous wastes were going to municipal dumps from 695,000
"small quantity generators."

Illegal dumping may be another source; illegal dumping is impossible to
prevent entirely because someone bringing in a truckload of wastes may
hide a few gallons, or a few barrels, of hazardous chemicals in the
middle of the truckload. The higher the price of legal disposal, the
more incentive people have to dump illegally. However, the most likely
source of most of the toxic materials in municipal landfills is legally-
disposed household products like paint solvents, oils, cleaning
compounds, degreasing compounds, and pesticides. "In addition, the
final depository of most of the products of our modern industrial
society is the municipal waste landfill where the paints, plastics, and
pharmaceuticals dissolve and degrade in the acidic anaerobic [oxygen-
free] environment, thereby, releasing degradation products which may be
even more toxic than the products from which they originated," say
Brown and Donnelly.

The findings of Brown and Donnelly will come as no surprise to many
researchers who have known for years that municipal leachate is as
toxic as the leachate from industrial landfills. For example, in an
REFUSE DISPOSAL SITES," Ronald A. Landon reported in 1969 in the
JOURNAL OF GROUND WATER, Vol. 7 (Nov.-Dec., 1969), pgs. 9-13, that
"Leachate at its source, that is within the landfill, has
concentrations and characteristics of many industrial wastes; and in
many instances would be better treated as such a waste." (pg. 12)

What Brown and Donnelly have contributed is a quantitative analysis of
the toxicity and the carcinogenic potential of leachates from the two
types of landfills.

Brown and Donnelly conclude, "The risk calculations based on suspect
carcinogens... indicate that the estimated carcinogenic potency for the
leachate from some municipal landfills may be similar to the
carcinogenic potency of the leachate from the Love Canal landfill."

In industrial landfill leachate, 32 chemicals cause cancer; 10 cause
birth defects, and 21 cause genetic damage; in municipal landfill
leachate, 32 chemicals cause cancer, 13 cause birth defects, and 22
cause genetic damage.

The new study, "An Estimation of the Risk Associated with the Organic
Constituents of Hazardous and Municipal Waste Landfill Leachates,"
5, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pgs. 1-30. Request a free reprint from Dr.
Kirk Brown, Soil and Crop Sciences Department, Texas A&M University,
College Station, TX 77843. Phone (409) 845-5201.

--Peter Montague



Five reporters with the Ft. Lauderdale (Fla) SUN SENTINEL investigated
the nation's trash haulers in 22 states in 1987 (see HWN #88 and #89),
and reported last December that the waste industry is so aggressive and
has grown so large that it often outstrips the ability of government to
control it.

The SUN SENTINEL team wrote, "Officials concede they often are
outflanked by the technical expertise the firms can muster, as well as
the complexity of affixing blame for causing contamination."

"'These companies often understand the regulations better than the
regulators,' said Steven W. Sisk, an EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency] investigator.

John Baker, manager of environmental programs for Waste Management, the
largest U.S. waste hauler, says, "In EPA, every two years I'm dealing
with new people. The agencies are a little behind in the technical
expertise," he said. Mr. Baker blamed low salaries for the turnover.

Richard Oakley, a vice president of Browning-Ferris Industries [BFI],
the nation's second-largest hauler, says, "A lot of times when we go
for meetings with them, technically we've got the upper hand."

Waste Management and BFI routinely claim that test results showing
they've contaminated groundwater are simply "lab error," not evidence
of pollution. "Regulators usually accept these claims without
independent verification," the SUN SENTINEL reports.

[We'll mail you all 25 stories from the SUN SENTINEL for $12.00.]

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: investigations; fl; waste hauling industry; msw;
regulations; wmi; epa; john baker; revolving door; bfi; groundwater;
water; water pollution; studies; findings; leachate; leaks; toxicity;
hazardous waste industry; msw; texas a&m; landfilling; cancer; love
canal; kin-buc landfill; studies; findings; household hazardous waste;
kirk brown; k c donnelly; rcra; epa; illegal dumping; risk assessment;
birth defects; developmental disorders;