My husband and I want to buy a house for our family. In order to try to raise our family we chose to live in one of the “best places to Live.” And, situated near the mountains are beautiful new homes fit for a king. We thought about buying one – but then our family members who are engineers and contractors mentioned the vicinity of the landfill. And asked us if we really factored that into our decision. We hadn’t until that moment….And, then our dreams turned to dust.
When we asked around if other people had taken that information into account they told us that if they had they would have made a different decision. And surely, the builder’s had factored in the healthy of my family before choosing a location right? So it’s better not to think about it.
But, I wasn’t so sure. So I started to do my OWN research.
As long as there have been humans, there have been garbage dumps. Archaeologists call dumps “midden heaps” and sift through them meticulously, searching for the meaning of life–or at least trying to understand what it means to be human.
For thousands upon thousand of years, humans have thrown their detritus into holes in the ground not far from home. And for thousands of years, this made sense. Soil contains an immense number of tiny creatures who spend their time breaking down organic materials into their original constituents. (These creatures make up the “detritus food chain” and they are essential to the wellbeing of the planet, though we rarely hear much about them–after all they are so small they are invisible, and who likes to discuss detritus-eaters anyway?)
Bury a banana peel or a dead squirrel for a month or two and they begin to lose form and substance, recycled by members of the detritus food chain back into their original inorganic constituents (oxygen, nitrogen, calcium and so forth). Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yes, shallow land burial (a dump) makes good sense for nontoxic materials.
But now dumps have become dangerous because many of the things we throw into them are toxic. Starting about the time of World War II, the nature of our economy changed. We began to turn our backs on the old raw materials–cotton, wood, paper, leather, glass, and iron–and we began substituting new raw materials. Many of the new materials are toxic. Because many of these materials do not occur in nature, the detritus food chain has never developed any members who lunch on them, so the new materials persist in the environment, unable to be broken down efficiently.
As a consequence, if you expose a modern dump (called a landfill) to rain, then collect the rain water that has filtered through the garbage (it’s now called “leachate“), you will find that the leachate from a solid waste landfill has about the same toxicity as the leachate from a landfill specially designated for toxic industrial chemicals.
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.
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.
For nearly 40 years after World War II, people buried toxic materials in the ground. Make no mistake–industrial chemists knew what they were doing; they knew it was dangerous, but it was cheap, and America was on a blind binge of growth and affluence. The modern formula for success became, “Haste plus waste makes profit.”
Many old dumpsites had no liners to prevent groundwater contamination. When the dumps were full, they were typically covered with loose topsoil. Rainwater and precipitation can seep into the waste and carry chemicals to the groundwater below. Because some old dumps used wetlands for disposal sites, the wastes were directly in contact with the groundwater table.
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.
Landfills in use today are built to prevent contamination. They are enclosed with special covers and liners to prevent rainwater from entering and exiting a landfill. This helps to prevent groundwater contamination.
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. And, 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.
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.”
We are just beginning to understand the full range of health effects resulting from the exposure to occupational and environmental agents and factors . . . Lack of appreciation of the potential hazards of environmental and food source contaminants worsen the public health problem and drive up health care costs.
The makers of public policy must recognize that toxic chemicals in the environment are widespread, proven causes of human disease. Each year preventable exposures to chemical toxins sicken and kill thousands of persons of all ages in the U.S. and around the world. These hazards must be confronted. They cannot be wished away. Reduction of exposures to chemical toxins will prevent thousands of deaths and will improve the quality of hundreds of thousands of lives.
Egypt stands as a lesson and warning. Its inhabitants fell away from the ancient stability paradigm.
Public health is the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting physical health and efficiency through organized community efforts for the sanitation of the environment, the control of community infections, the education of the individual in principles of personal hygiene, the organization of medical and nursing services for the early diagnosis and preventive treatment of disease, and the development of social machinery which will ensure to every individual in the community a standard of living adequate for the maintenance of health.
Most studies of health and illness in ancient Egypt concentrate on disease and other maladies affecting individuals and the medical treatments administered to individuals. However, the concept of public health has received comparatively little attention, largely because the practice of public health has been seen as a fairly modern phenomenon tied to purely scientific notions of the sources and causes of illness and disease and their prevention.
Nevertheless, even in the absence of a true germ theory of disease, the ancient Egyptians did possess an understanding of the social context in which many disease conditions occurred and took steps to prevent and alleviate certain conditions at a group level.
From fairly basic public health practices, such as the removal of trash to peripheral locations, to reasonably sophisticated theories on the origin of disease and the widespread promulgation of preventive practices, ancient Egypt shows that even in pre-scientific complex societies an awareness of the social context of health and disease existed. Egypt and other ancient societies developed strategies to deal with health and wellness on a community and national level and thus are amenable to study using modern public health theory.
We should borrow ancient Egypt’s wisdom and shift our focus from “how can we exploit our resources more and more effectively to get maximum growth?” to “how can we exploit our resources more and more efficiently to get greater benefits without exhausting our resources?”
We can have progress and stability. We simply need to wean ourselves from progress and growth and shift to progress and stability.
Sustainability doesn’t have to mean stagnation. We can seek to build more energy-efficient devices. We can find ways to use less polluting materials that do not produce waste or useless by-products. And, like the Egyptians, we can look for ways to do more with what we have.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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