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PETITIONED PUBLIC HEALTH ASSESSMENT

FRESH KILLS LANDFILL
STATEN ISLAND, RICHMOND COUNTY, NEW YORK


SUMMARY

At the request of concerned residents of Staten Island, New York, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) evaluated whether the Fresh Kills Landfill, a municipal solid waste landfill located on the western shore of Staten Island, releases unhealthy levels of contaminants to the local environment. For the last 8 years, ATSDR has conducted a wide range of activities to address the Staten Island residents' public health concerns. These activities have included reviewing environmental sampling data, evaluating previous health studies, conducting a respiratory health investigation, and meeting with health departments and concerned residents, frequently.

ATSDR believes the numerous sampling studies and health studies that have been performed in the Staten Island area paint a very consistent picture of releases of contaminants from the Fresh Kills Landfill. Key findings from these studies, and ATSDR's interpretation of these studies, follow:

  • The chemical waste from the Fresh Kills Landfill has entered, and continues to enter, the groundwater beneath the site, surface waters around the site, and the air. Data indicate that some of the chemicals released to the surface waters might also be found in fish and shellfish.


  • It is unlikely that Staten Island residents have come into contact with contaminants in the groundwater beneath the landfill, in local surface waters, or in fish and shellfish harvested from these waters, since restrictions and advisories prevent or greatly limit the use of these resources. Accordingly, ATSDR concludes that the contaminants in the groundwater, surface water, fish, and shellfish near the Fresh Kills Landfill pose no apparent public health hazard, provided that residents abide by the restrictions and advisories for these resources.


  • It is highly likely that Staten Island residents might come into contact with contaminants released to the air. Many studies, have measured levels of air pollution near the Fresh Kills Landfill. The combined results of these studies provide one of the most extensive sets of ambient air monitoring data that ATSDR has ever reviewed for a municipal solid waste landfill. Although these studies confirm that Staten Island residents have been, and continue to be, exposed to numerous air pollutants, ATSDR has found that airborne levels of the contaminants detected in ambient air monitoring (that most likely originate from the Fresh Kills Landfill) have not exceeded ATSDR based "unsafe" or "unhealthy" levels. As a result, ATSDR classifies current air emissions from the Fresh Kills Landfill as a no apparent public health hazard.
  • ATSDR cannot be certain that emissions from the Fresh Kills Landfill did not pose a public health hazard in the past. An insufficient amount of air data was available to review before 1990, and sufficient landfill emission controls did not exist. Therefore the agency classified past air emissions as an indeterminate public health hazard.

  • ATSDR's recent health investigation at Staten Island found that air measurements of hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter and ozone taken during the study period were below levels that might result in adverse health effects. Results of the investigation showed that on days when participants smelled the odor of rotten eggs or garbage, they were more likely to report the occurrence of wheeze. A small relationship was also observed between the smell of rotten eggs or garbage and evidence of air flow obstruction in some participating residents. These findings varied among subgroups of the study population according to variables such as age and duration of asthma. These odor issues are expected to diminish as emission controls continue to be installed at the landfill.


  • The data suggest that general air quality throughout the New York City metropolitan area has periodically reached potentially unhealthy levels. This may be due primarily to infrequent elevated concentrations of ozone, the primary component of "urban smog." These elevated levels have occurred over at least the last 25 years and might be a contributing factor to some of the health effects that residents of Staten Island cited in their petitions to ATSDR. In particular it might have triggered or exasperated respiratory problems among people with asthma. The high levels of ozone result from emissions from many different industrial and motor vehicle sources. Though emissions from the Fresh Kills Landfill contribute to the New York Metropolitan area's ozone problem, many other sources throughout the metropolitan area and beyond also affect ozone levels in Staten Island.

This public health assessment presents a technical review of the levels of contamination near the Fresh Kills Landfill. A large volume of information was reviewed by ATSDR in evaluating the residents' public health concerns. This document addresses, in particular, the public health implications from inhalation exposure to air pollution at Staten Island.


BACKGROUND AND STATEMENT OF ISSUES

Critical elements of ATSDR's work on the Fresh Kills Landfill site included identifying and appreciating the specific health concerns raised by community members, understanding the landfill's operating history, and involving community members and health departments in the health assessment process. The following discussion reviews these elements of the public health assessment process, thus providing important background information for the analyses presented in the "Discussion" section, below.

A. Purpose and Health Issues
ATSDR has worked on the Fresh Kills Landfill site for the last 8 years with the intent of addressing community health concerns. The Agency first learned of these health concerns in 1991 from a petition letter written by a Staten Island resident. Shortly thereafter, then U.S. Congresswoman Susan Molinari, acting on behalf of her constituents, also submitted a petition letter to ATSDR, in which she asked the Agency to evaluate air quality data for the Fresh Kills Landfill. The petition letters received to date have expressed concerns about many adverse health effects (e.g., cancer, respiratory illnesses, and reproductive problems) experienced by people who live near the landfill. Moreover, the petitioners suspected that chemicals released from the landfill--particularly air emissions--might be causing these adverse health effects. Section C, below, discusses the community health concerns in greater detail.

Since receiving the petition letters discussed above, ATSDR has made a considerable effort to evaluate the community health concerns and take appropriate public health actions, as necessary. This effort has included gathering and reviewing sampling records kept by local, state, and federal environmental agencies; consulting with the New York City and New York State health departments to develop effective strategies for addressing public health issues at the site; working with Staten Island residents to understand their health concerns; and conducting an extensive respiratory health study to investigate potential links between adverse health effects and emissions from the landfill. Section D, below, provides a more detailed account of ATSDR's involvement with the Fresh Kills Landfill site.

Although ATSDR has regularly communicated its public health findings to the residents of Staten Island in a series of health consultations and public meetings that have focused on very specific issues (e.g., reviewing recently released air monitoring data and critiquing ambient air monitoring plans), ATSDR has yet to release a comprehensive review of the public health issues relevant to the Fresh Kills Landfill site. The purpose of this public health assessment, therefore, is to fill this information gap by providing an extensive overview of our understanding of how chemical releases from the Fresh Kills Landfill affect the health of nearby residents. Moreover, this public health assessment reviewed recently released ambient air monitoring data that previous health consultations did not consider.

B. Site Description and History
Believed to be one of the largest landfills in the world, the Fresh Kills Landfill spans more than 2,000 acres of land along the western shore of Staten Island, New York (Weston, 1996a), and is located in an area of mixed residential, commercial, industrial, and recreational land uses (see Figure 1). Many residential neighborhoods in the borough of Staten Island are located within 1 mile of the Fresh Kills Landfill--primarily to the north, east, and south of the landfill. Some residential neighborhoods in Carteret, New Jersey, also are located within 1 mile of the landfill. Several schools, malls, and parks are located within or near these residential areas.

Opened in 1948, and scheduled to close in 2001, the Fresh Kills Landfill is owned by the City of New York and operated by the New York City Department of Sanitation (NYCDOS). The Fresh Kills Landfill is currently the only active municipal solid waste landfill in New York City. The landfill, which receives waste both by truck and by barge, is actually comprised of four distinct sections, named Section 1/9, Section 2/8, Section 3/4, and Section 6/7. Of these, only Section 1/9 currently receives waste; Section 6/7 closed in 1999. In addition to waste disposal, several other operations take place at the Fresh Kills Landfill, such as composting, concrete crushing, leachate treatment, and landfill gas recovery.

Another landfill--the Brookfield Avenue Landfill--is located near the southeastern border of the Fresh Kills Landfill. In addition to the concerns relevant to the Fresh Kills Landfill, many local residents have expressed health concerns about coming into contact with chemicals in and near the Brookfield Avenue Landfill. These landfills differ, however, in at least one important regard: waste haulers have testified to illegally dumping large quantities of hazardous waste in the Brookfield Avenue Landfill (ATSDR, 1999a). The wastes dumped in the Fresh Kills Landfill in recent years are believed to be almost entirely residential. ATSDR has recently completed a public health assessment for the Brookfield Avenue Landfill (ATSDR, 1999a), which can be found in any of the Agency's record repositories at Staten Island.

The waste disposed of at the Fresh Kills Landfill, and the decomposition products of this waste, contain numerous chemicals. As explained throughout this report, the chemicals in the Fresh Kills Landfill can enter the environment in several ways. For instance, volatile chemicals can be released to the air during barge unloading and waste dumping, and they can gradually evaporate through the landfill surface. Furthermore, particulate matter (airborne dusts) can be released to the air by the cement crushing operations, when trucks drive on any of the landfill's dirt roads, and when high winds blow over the landfill surfaces. Also, chemicals buried in the landfill can enter local surface waters and groundwater as rainfall flows on top of waste-coated surfaces and through the mounds of decomposing waste. Many other activities and operations at the Fresh Kills Landfill can lead to releases of chemicals to the environment.

It is worth noting, however, that NYCDOS has implemented several controls over the last 20 years that have greatly reduced the amount of chemicals that the Fresh Kills Landfill releases to the environment. Examples of these controls include: a landfill gas collection system that gathers and processes landfill gases that would otherwise be released to the air; a system of flares that destroys (by burning) toxic chemicals in landfill gases before they enter the ambient air; and a leachate treatment plant that cleans contaminated water generated in the landfill before it flows into local surface waters. Although these and other controls have considerably reduced the amount of chemicals the Fresh Kills Landfill releases to the environment, ongoing releases to local groundwater, surface water, and air undoubtedly occur.

Numerous studies have been performed over the last 25 years to characterize the composition and magnitude of chemical releases from the Fresh Kills Landfill. A large fraction of these studies, however, acknowledge the difficulty characterizing the impact of the landfill on the local environment, since many other sources of pollution are found near the western shore of Staten Island. For instance, air pollution studies have been complicated by the fact that the Fresh Kills Landfill is located near many other air emissions sources, such as heavily-traveled roadways and industrial facilities. Further, water pollution studies, particularly those conducted in the Arthur Kill, have detected chemicals that were released from numerous sources, including the Fresh Kills Landfill, local sewage treatment plants, industrial discharges, and sewer outfalls (IT, 1993a).

Data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirm that many industrial facilities near Staten Island release toxic chemicals into local waterways and the air. Although relatively few large industrial facilities operate on Staten Island, the 1997 Toxics Release Inventory (TRI)--a database of environmental releases maintained by EPA--indicates that 225 industrial facilities located in the New Jersey counties that border Staten Island released toxic chemicals to the environment. During 1997, these 225 facilities reportedly released a combined total of 5.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals to the air and 1.7 million pounds of toxic chemicals to local surface waters.(1) These emissions data highlight the fact that contaminants measured in water and air near Staten Island originate from many different sources. The "Discussion" section of this report revisits this issue.

C. Demographics
According to the 1990 U.S. Census, 71,525 people, including residents of both Staten Island and New Jersey, live within a one-mile radius of the Fresh Kills Landfill (see Figure 2) (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1990). Of the total population, 91 % is white, and the remaining 9 % is black, Asian, Hispanic, or of another race. Further, 11 % of the population is children, age 6 years old and younger, and 6 % is age 65 years and older. In 1990, 19,352 females of reproductive age (15-44 years) lived within 1 mile of the Fresh Kills Landfill. Analyses later in this public health assessment refer back to these census data, particularly when commenting on potentially exposed populations, including more sensitive populations such as children and the elderly.

D. Overview of Past Public Health Activities
Over the past 8 years, many scientists from ATSDR's regional office in New York City and from the national headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, have worked closely with members of the Staten Island community to evaluate their public health concerns. Working in cooperation with the residents, local government officials, and health departments has provided ATSDR critical insight into the history of the Fresh Kills Landfill site and the adverse health effects reported by community members. In turn, ATSDR has prepared a wide range of outreach materials that comment on the public health implications of living near this site.

An overview of past and current public health activities at the Fresh Kills Landfill site, are organized into six categories.

Site visits. Several times from 1991 to the present, teams of ATSDR scientists have toured the Fresh Kills Landfill and its vicinity. Some of the site tours were self-guided; others were guided by NYCDOS employees; and others still were guided by representatives of the Staten Island Borough President's Office.

Community involvement. Starting in 1997 and continuing to the present, ATSDR has hosted semiannual community board meetings on Staten Island to update residents on the Agency's ongoing evaluations of the Fresh Kills Landfill site and to discuss community health concerns with the residents who report them. Moreover, starting in March 1998, and continuing to the present, ATSDR has prepared and distributed a semiannual newsletter to more than 1,800 Staten Island residents. To date, the newsletters have communicated a wide range of public health information regarding ATSDR's ongoing work at the Fresh Kills Landfill and Brookfield Avenue Landfill sites.

Outside agency involvement. Starting in 1996 and continuing to the present, ATSDR scientists have met regularly, at times monthly, on Staten Island with representatives of the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), the New York City Department of Health (NYCDOH), and the Staten Island Borough President's Office to develop strategies for best addressing community health concerns for the Fresh Kills Landfill site. Community activists and local physicians have attended some of these meetings as well.

Health investigation. In the summer of 1997, ATSDR conducted a 6-week study of 148 Staten Island residents who have asthma, to determine whether acute changes in respiratory function might be linked to emissions from the Fresh Kills Landfill. During this study, participants kept daily diaries that documented their respiratory health, while more than 140,000 observations of air quality were collected in their residential neighborhood next to the landfill. The study found no association between adverse health effects and airborne levels of hydrogen sulfide--a chemical that the Fresh Kills Landfill releases in large amounts; however, results of the study suggest that odor in the neighborhood was associated with changes in the respiratory health of study participants (ATSDR, 1999c). More information on this study is presented in the "Discussion" section of this public health assessment.

Health consultations. Over the last 8 years, ATSDR has published six documents that address public health concerns regarding the Fresh Kills Landfill. A summary of these documents, which are all publicly available at ATSDR's records repositories at Staten Island, follows:

  • In May 1993, after reviewing a large set of ambient air monitoring data, ATSDR published its first health consultation for the Fresh Kills Landfill site (ATSDR, 1993a). This health consultation reported that none of the chemicals that had been monitored in the ambient air in the vicinity of the Fresh Kills Landfill appeared to reach levels of public health concern, but the consultation recommended ongoing evaluation of ambient air monitoring data to verify this finding.


  • In March 1996, after reviewing another large set of ambient air monitoring data, ATSDR published its second health consultation for the Fresh Kills Landfill site (ATSDR, 1996a). This health consultation also reported that none of the chemicals monitored in the ambient air in the vicinity of the landfill appeared to reach levels of public health concern; however, the consultation recommended further review of monitoring data that were being collected by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC).


  • In September 1996, ATSDR released its third health consultation for the Fresh Kills Landfill site (ATSDR, 1996b). This health consultation commented on, and recommended several improvements to the public health evaluations presented in NYCDOS's "Draft Environmental Impact Statement" for the Fresh Kills Landfill (Weston, 1996b).


  • In January 1998, after reviewing several years of ambient air monitoring data collected by NYSDEC and an EPA study of emissions from the Fresh Kills Landfill, ATSDR released its fourth health consultation on this site (ATSDR, 1998a). The health consultation found no "landfill-related contaminants" at levels of public health concern, but identified several data gaps that prevented a more complete evaluation of community health concerns. These data gaps included the lack of monitoring data for hydrogen sulfide and particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5).


  • In December 1998, ATSDR released its fifth health consultation for the Fresh Kills Landfill site (ATSDR, 1998b). This consultation commented on an incident at the unloading zone of the landfill, where several workers were overcome by "an unknown airborne substance or substances." Though ATSDR reviewed emergency response records and very limited air sampling data, the Agency could not determine the cause of the incident.


  • In April 1999, ATSDR released its sixth health consultation--a summary report of the ambient air monitoring data collected during the 1997 health investigation at Staten Island (ERG, 1999). This health consultation provided a technical summary of the air monitoring data and identified and interpreted trends among the measured concentrations. The final report for the health investigation reviewed the public health implications of the monitoring data (ATSDR, 1999c), as does the "Discussion" section of this report.

Health education. In collaboration with NYCDOH, NYSDOH, and the Richmond County Medical Society, ATSDR developed and offered continuing education courses to bring local medical professionals up to date on the latest environmental health issues relevant to the Fresh Kills Landfill. Further, with support from ATSDR, NYCDOH is coordinating the "Staten Island Environmental Education Project"--a program that will offer health and environmental education courses to the communities that surround the Fresh Kills Landfill and Brookfield Avenue Landfill.

Overall, the various activities listed above reflect ATSDR's ongoing efforts to work closely with the Staten Island community and its representatives to evaluate health concerns related to the Fresh Kills Landfill. This public health assessment differs from the previous published work by providing a comprehensive public health evaluation of the Fresh Kills Landfill site, rather than focusing on any one specific issue.

E. Community Health Concerns
Since 1991, Staten Island residents, their elected officials, and local medical professionals have expressed a wide range of health concerns to ATSDR. The first concerns communicated to the Agency concerned children's health problems, miscarriages, infertility, and cancer among residents who live near both the Fresh Kills Landfill and the Brookfield Avenue Landfill. Some residents wondered if chemical releases from the landfills might be causing these adverse health effects.

When investigating these health concerns, ATSDR learned of additional concerns from local medical professionals.  Many physicians perceived a marked increase in asthma among Staten Island residents, and some physicians reported a trend in respiratory illness which they called the "Staten Island Syndrome." This trend, according to a local pulmonologist, is observed among residents who have asthma and who have moved away from, and then returned to Staten Island. Some of these residents reportedly noticed their symptoms of asthma cease shortly after leaving Staten Island, but their symptoms gradually returned after moving back to Staten Island.

A consistent theme among the community concerns is the suspicion that air emissions from the Fresh Kills Landfill (as opposed to releases to local groundwater, surface water, and soils) were leading to unhealthy levels of air pollution, and eventually to adverse health effects among residents. ATSDR believes a contributing factor to this concern about air pollution is the fact that the Fresh Kills Landfill has a long history of being the source of objectionable odor. In fact, residents who live near the Fresh Kills Landfill have reportedly filed more odor and air pollution complaints to the Interstate Sanitation Commission than residents in any other area of this Commission's jurisdiction, which includes parts of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut (ISC, 1997).

As explained earlier, the purpose of this public health assessment is to put community health concerns into perspective. The remainder of this document reviews environmental sampling data and health outcome data to comment on the likelihood that chemical releases from the Fresh Kills Landfill are related to adverse health effects among Staten Island residents. Consistent with the health concerns expressed by these residents, the analyses in the remainder of this report focus on air quality issues, with a lesser emphasis placed on other exposure pathways.


1. There are many important limitations associated with TRI chemical release data. First, because not every facility in the Staten Island area (including the Fresh Kills Landfill) is required to disclose chemical release data to TRI, the emissions data are an underestimate of the actual toxic chemical releases from industrial facilities. Second, emissions from mobile sources (cars, buses, trucks and trains) are not included. Third, because the data are self-reported and not routinely checked for accuracy, the representativeness of TRI data are not known. The emissions data cited in the report should be interpreted accordingly.

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