Landfills create a clear and obvious threat to human health as well as a threat to our environment from the hazardous contaminated air emissions emitted from the landfill biodegradation. There are over ten toxic gases released from landfills, of the most serious of which is methane. Methane gas is naturally produced during the process of decay of organic matter. As methane gas is formed, it builds up pressure and then begins to move through the soil. In a recent study of 288 landfills, off-site migration of gases, including methane, has been detected at 83% of these landfill sites. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Studies have shown significantly reduced height among children who live near Love Canal, the chemical waste dump near Niagara Falls, NY. It has also been shown that people living close to landfills suffer from lung and heart diseases from the toxic gasses that are released from the landfill degradation.
The key environmental problem we face as a result of landfills is groundwater pollution from leachates (the liquid that drains or ‘leaches’ from a landfill). Although they intended to protect human beings from toxins, due to natural deterioration the protective barriers only delay the inevitable. When a new municipal landfill is proposed, advocates of the project always emphasize that “no hazardous wastes will enter the landfill”. However several studies have shown that even though municipal landfills may not legally receive “hazardous” wastes, the leachate they produce is as dangerous as leachate from hazardous waste landfills.
The major issue caused with landfill leachates is the leakage of a large number of toxins into fresh water waterways, which ultimately end up in our homes as drinking water or water for everyday use. Since landfills are most often located in and around large bodies of fresh water or in swamps, the pollution often goes undetected. The compounds submerge to the ground, to the ground water, and inevitably to our dinner tables. The pollution is also severely harmful to animal and plant life.
Groundwater contamination may result from leakage of very small amounts of leachate. TCE is a carcinogen typically found in landfill leachate. It would take less than 4 drops of TCE mixed with the water in an average swimming pool (20,000 gallons) to render the water undrinkable. Some surveys conducted have shown that 82% of the landfills have leaks and up to 41% of the landfills had a leak area of more than one square foot. EPA sponsored research shows that burying household garbage in the ground poisoned the ground water. The EPA has stressed that, even with the double liner landfills, the probability of leaking is very high.
As the number of landfills increase the likelihood of leaks increases five-fold. The increase in trash is due to population growth and consumerism. United States population growth is equivalent or marginally lower than most middle to low-middle income developing countries but the American rate of consumption is far greater than any other developed or developing country today. The amount of waste collected in an average American house hold is far greater than that of any developed or developing country in the world today.