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#617 - Landfills Are Dangerous, 23-Sep-1998

A new study by the New York State Department of Health reports that
women living near solid waste landfills where gas is escaping have a
four-fold increased chance of bladder cancer or leukemia (cancer of the
blood-forming cells).[1]

The new study examined the occurrence of seven kinds of cancer among
men and women living near 38 landfills where naturally-occurring
landfill gas is thought to be escaping into the surrounding air. Of the
14 kinds of cancer studied (7 each in men and women), 10 (or 71%) were
found to be elevated but only two (bladder and leukemia in women)
achieved statistical significance at the 5% level. The seven cancers
studied were leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, liver, lung, kidney,
bladder, and brain cancer. In women living near landfills, the
incidence of all seven kinds of cancer was elevated. In men, the study
found elevated (though not statistically significant) incidence of lung
cancer, bladder cancer, and leukemia.

What is most surprising about the New York study is that it only
examined 38 landfills. The state Department of Health began looking at
131 landfills, but eventually studied only 38 of them (29%) on the
grounds that only those 38 were likely to be releasing gases. In
contrast, a 1990 study of 356 California landfills found 240 of them
(or 67%) emitting one or more toxic solvents.[2] It is not clear why
New York authorities assumed that gases are escaping from only 29% of
New York landfills when toxic gases have been measured escaping from
67% of the landfills tested in California.

Landfill gas consists of naturally-occurring methane and carbon
dioxide, which form inside the landfill as the waste decomposes. As the
gases form, pressure builds up inside a landfill, forcing the gases to
move. Some of the gases escape through the surrounding soil or simply
move upward into the atmosphere, where they drift away.

Typically, landfill gases that escape from a landfill will carry along
toxic chemicals such as paint thinner, solvents, pesticides and other
hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs), many of them chlorinated.

The New York state health department tested for VOCs escaping from 25
landfills and reported finding dry cleaning fluid (tetrachloroethylene,
or PERC), trichloroethylene (TCE), toluene, 1,1,1-trichloroethane,
benzene, vinyl chloride, xylene, ethylbenzene, methylene chloride, 1,2-
dichloroethene, and chloroform in the escaping gases.[1]

This is not the first study to show that people living near landfills
have an increased incidence of cancer. A 1995 study of families living
near a large municipal solid waste landfill (the Miron Quarry) in
Montreal, Quebec reported an elevated incidence of cancers of the
stomach, liver, prostate, and lung among men, and stomach and
cervix/uterus among women.[3]

A 1984 study reported that men (but not women) living near the Drake
Superfund site in Pennsylvania, had an excessive incidence of bladder
cancers, though occupational exposures could not be ruled out as the
source of those cancers.[4]

A 1990 study found an increased incidence of bladder cancers in
northwestern Illinois where a landfill had contaminated a municipal
water supply with trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PERC),
and other chlorinated solvents.[5]

A 1989 study by the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] examined
593 waste sites in 339 U.S. counties, revealing elevated cancers of the
bladder, lung, stomach and rectum in counties with the highest
concentration of waste sites.[6]

Increased incidence of leukemia has been reported in a community near a
toxic waste dump in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.[7]

A 1986 study of children with leukemia in Woburn, Massachusetts
statistically linked the disease to drinking water supplies that had
been contaminated by a waste site.[8]

Thus leukemias and bladder cancer are the most commonly reported
cancers among populations living near landfills, providing support for
the recent findings in New York.

It should come as no surprise that living near a landfill is hazardous
to your health --and it doesn't matter whether the landfill holds solid
waste or hazardous waste. Hazardous waste landfills hold unwanted toxic
residues from manufacturing processes. On the other hand, municipal
solid waste landfills hold discarded products, many of which were
manufactured from toxic materials. The wastes go out the back door of
the factory while the products go out the front door, but after they
have been buried in the ground both wastes and products create very
similar hazards for the environment, wildlife, and humans. The leachate
(liquid) produced inside the two kinds of landfills is chemically
identical.[9] (See REHW #90.)

The most commonly reported effect of living near a landfill is low
birth weight and small size among children. The first careful study of
this subject took place at Love Canal near Niagara Falls, New York. In
a blinded study published in 1989, researchers found that children who
had lived at least 75% of their lives near Love Canal --the notorious
toxic chemical dump --had significantly shorter stature than children
who lived farther away from the dump site. These results held up even
after controlling for birth weight, socio-economic status, and parental

A previous (1984) study had shown that children who lived near Love
Canal had abnormally low weight at birth.[11] The following year,
another study confirmed low birth weight in children born to parents
living near Love Canal.[12] There does not seem to be any remaining
doubt that the children of Love Canal were put in harm's way by
exposure to the 20,000 tons of chemical wastes buried in their back
yards. Those wastes remain buried there, and the families that have
recently moved into homes at Love Canal are likely in danger too.

Studies of children living near other landfills have confirmed these
findings. A study of families living near the Lipari landfill in New
Jersey reported low birth weight among babies born during 1971-1975,
when the landfill was thought to have leaked the greatest quantity of
toxic materials into the local environment.[13]

A study of people living near the BKK landfill in Los Angeles County,
California in 1997 reported significantly reduced birth weight among
children born during the period of heaviest dumping at the site.[14]

A 1995 study of families living near a large municipal solid waste dump
(the Miron Quarry) near Montreal, Quebec found a 20% increased
likelihood of low birth weight among those most heavily exposed to
gases from the landfill.[15]

At least five studies have reported finding an increased chance of
birth defects among babies whose parents live near a landfill. In
Wales, the chances of birth defects were doubled among families living
near the Nant-y-Gwyddon landfill.[16] A 1990 study in the San Francisco
region found a 1.5-fold greater chance of birth defects of the heart
and circulatory system among newborns whose parents lived near a solid
or hazardous waste site.[17]

A 1990 study of 590 hazardous waste sites in New York state found a 12%
increase in birth defects in families living within a mile of a site.
[18] A 1997 study of women living within a quarter-mile of a Superfund
site showed a two-to four-fold increased chance of having a baby with a
neural tube defect, or a heart defect.[19] A preliminary report in 1997
found a statistically significant 33% increased chance of a birth
defect occurring in babies born to families living within 3 kilometers
(1.9 miles) of any of 21 landfills in 10 European countries.[20]

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
recently reviewed 46 studies of the human health effects of landfills.
[21] They concluded, "[L]andfill sites may represent real risks in
certain circumstances." They also pointed out that exact mechanism of
the hazard remains unknown. Is the biggest hazard air or water
pollution? No one knows. But the evidence seems overwhelming: living
near a landfill can be dangerous. So long as we remain a society
addicted to chlorine chemistry and other toxic technologies, our
discards will be toxic, and the places where we bury them will be
hazardous to health for a long time to come.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] State of New York Department of Health, INVESTIGATION OF CANCER
CONDITIONS, NEW YORK STATE, 1980-1989 (Atlanta, Ga: Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry, June, 1998). Available from the
National Technical Information Service in Springfield, Virginia [1-800-
553-6847]; request publication PB98-142144.

[2] Lynton Baker, Renee Capouya, Carole Cenci, Renaldo Crooks, and
EVALUATION GUIDELINES (Sacramento, Calif.: California Air Resources
Board [1102 Q Street, P.O. Box 2815, Sacramento, CA 95812], September,
1990). See REHW #226.

[3] M.S. Goldberg and others, "Incidence of cancer among persons living
near a municipal solid waste landfill site in Montreal, Quebec,"
ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 50, No. 6 (November 1995), pgs.

[4] L.D. Budnick and others, "Cancer and birth defects near the Drake
Superfund site, Pennsylvania," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol.
39, No. 6 (November 1984), pgs. 409-413.

[5] K. Mallin, "Investigation of a bladder cancer cluster in
northwestern Illinois," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 132 No. 1
Supplement (July 1990), pgs. S96-S106.

[6] J. Griffith and others, "Cancer mortality in U.S. counties with
hazardous waste sites and ground water pollution," ARCHIVES OF
ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 44, No. 2 (March 1989), pgs. 69-74.

[7] E. Greiser and others, "Increased incidence of leukemias in the
vicinity of a previous industrial waste dump in North Rhine-Westfalia,
West Germany [abstract]," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 134,
No. 7 (1991), pg. 755.

[8] Kirk Brown and K.C. Donnelly, "An Estimation of the Risk Associated
with the Organic Constituents of Hazardous and Municipal Waste Landfill
(Spring, 1988), pgs. 1-30.

[9] S.W. Lagakos and others, "An analysis of contaminated well water
and health effects in Woburn, Massachusetts," JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN
STATISTICAL ASSOCIATION Vol. 81, No. 395 (1986), pgs. 583-596.

[10] B. Paigen and others, "Growth of children living near the
hazardous waste site, Love Canal," HUMAN BIOLOGY Vol. 59, No. 3 (June
1987), pgs. 489-508.

[11] N.J. Vianna and A.K. Polan, "Incidence of low birth weight among
Love Canal residents," SCIENCE Vol. 226, No. 4679 (December 1984), pgs.

[12] L.R. Goldman and others, "Low birth weight, prematurity and birth
defects in children living near the hazardous waste site, Love Canal,"
HAZARDOUS WASTE & HAZARDOUS MATERIALS Vol. 2, No. 2 (1985), pgs. 209-

[13] M. Berry and F. Bove, "Birth weight reduction associated with
residence near a hazardous waste landfill," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
PERSPECTIVES Vol. 105, No. 8 (August 1997), pgs. 856-861.

[14] M. Kharrazi and others, "A community based study of adverse
pregnancy outcomes near a large hazardous waste landfill in
California," TOXICOLOGY AND INDUSTRIAL HEALTH Vol. 13, Nos. 2/3 (1997),
pgs. 299-310.

[15] M.S. Goldberg and others, "Low birth weight and preterm births
among infants born to women living near a municipal solid waste
landfill site in Montreal, Quebec," ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69,
No. 1 (April 1995), pgs. 37-50.

[16] H.M.P. Fielder and others, "Report on the health of residents
living near the Nant-Y Gwyddon landfill site using routinely available
data," (Cardiff, Wales: Welsh Combined Centres for Public Health:

[17] G.M. Shaw and others, "Maternal water consumption during pregnancy
and congenital cardiac anomalies," EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 1, No. 3 (May
1990), pgs. 206-211.

[18] S.A. Geschwind and others, "Risk of congenital malformations
associated with proximity to hazardous waste sites," AMERICAN JOURNAL
OF EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 135, No. 11 (June 1, 1992), pgs. 1197-1207.

[19] L.A. Croen and others, "Maternal residential proximity to
hazardous waste sites and risk of selected congenital malformations,"
EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 8, No. 4 (July 1997), pgs. 347-354.

[20] M. Vrijheid and H. Dolk [EUROHAZCON Collaborative Group],
"Residence near hazardous waste landfill sites and risk of non-
chromosomal congenital malformations [abstract]," TERATOLOGY Vol. 56,
No. 6 (1997), pg. 401.

[21] Martine Vrijheid, Ben Armstrong and others, POTENTIAL HUMAN HEALTH
ENVIRONMENT AGENCY (London: Environmental Epidemiology Unit, London
School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, March, 1998). We are indebted
to Alan Watson of Public Interest Consultants in Swansea, UK for
providing us with a copy of this report. Mr. Watson's telephone is
0179-285-1599; his E-mail is alanwatson@gn.apc.org.

Descriptor terms: landfilling; cancer; carcinogens; chlorine;
chlorinated solvents; birth weight; birth defects; bladder cancer;
leukemia; canada; low birth weight;