Invisible health risks of garbage landfills

Laxmipura, a village on the outskirts of Bengaluru, was in news last year due to the incidence of a flare in a landfill adjacent to it. Sewage of the nearby multi-storied building which was dumped on this landfill had created an environmental havoc around the village. The inflammable methane gas formed by the anaerobic decay of garbage in the landfill caused the flares.

The entire area was stinking because of gases emitted by the landfill. The overflow of sewage was spreading into the agricultural land and into a nearby lake and water in open and bore wells was severely contaminated due to leachate from the landfill.

When we visited Laxmipura recently, we were aghast to see the worsened conditions. Sew-age of the adjacent multi-storied building was still being let into the landfill area. Effluents continuously wetted the buried garbage, leading to chemical decay which in turn produced hazardous gases and leachate.

Methane still emanated from dried up borewells and cracks in the mud over landfill. Most agricultural lands around the landfill were waste-laden as soil was contaminated due to sewage flow there. An open well, which provided potable water for the entire village, even during drought, was severely contaminated beyond use. The villagers were forced to depend on  tankers for water supply.

Research from around the world has shown the drastic effects on human health due to polluted air, water and soil in landfill sites. A range of health problems, including cancer and birth defects, have been alerted by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) of the UK. Its results – based on several health surveys in different landfill areas – finds that airborne chemicals, dust and micro-organisms near the landfill sites have been responsible for health impact on humans.

Prolonged inhalation of methane and carbon dioxide, the prime gases over landfills, are reported to cause headache, dizziness, mental confusion, palpitation, increased blood pressure, difficulty in breathing, impact on central nervous system and damage to immune cells in lungs, as per the 2009 report of HPA.

High concentration of  hydrogen sulphide, which is produced by organic decay in a landfill, is responsible for smelly air and its continuous inhalation could cause depression of the central nervous system, loss of consci-ousness, nausea and respiratory paralysis as per the World Hea-lth Organisation (2000) report.

Certain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) formed in landfills are also considered to have potential genotoxic cancerogenic properties, that is to induce cancer by mechanisms that involve the compound itself or a metabolite, reacting directly with the genetic material of cells (DNA), producing a mutation.

Congenital anomalies
The grave concern, perhaps, is the incidence of congenital anomalies as reported from landfill sites of Europe, through a study carried out by EUROHAZCON (Congenital Anomalies near Hazardous Waste Landfill Sites in Europe).

This study investigated pregnancy outcomes in women living within 7 km from 21 hazardous waste landfill sites in five countries. It found a higher incidence of non-chromosomal congenital anomalies, especially neural tube defects and anomalies of the greater arteries and veins in babies whose mothers lived close to a landfill site than in babies of those mothers who lived further away.

An increased risk of low birth weight was also seen in the studied population as reported by Elioff and his co-authors in 2001. Risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes for people living within a mile of a total 1,281 landfill sites in the US has also been reported.

In the backdrop of this, developed countries handle municipal waste with great care. But in India, such health risks are hardly realised. Proper segregation and land filling of waste has remained a distant dream in metropolitan cities like Bengaluru, and the landfills in its fringe areas continue to be a cause of great concern for the surrounding residents. Laxmipura is one such village exposed to health risks.

Therefore, all the landfill sites (abandoned and active) need urgent attention from the point of landfill engineering, environmental issues, toxicology and epidemiology to characterise each of them on a site-specific basis for drawing elaborate strategies to minimise adverse health effects.

It may be noted that as per the Environmental Protection Act of 1986, it is a punishable act to contaminate water, land and air – the life sustaining natural embodiments – either by intended or unintended human acts.

(The writers are with the Department of Geology, Bangalore University)

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