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Evaluation of Available Air Data


ATSDR's general approach to evaluating a site is to review environmental data related to the release of chemicals into the environment and to evaluate the pathways by which the public might be exposed to such releases. ATSDR typically looks for five elements of a completed or potentially completed exposure pathway. These elements are (1) a release of a chemical; (2) the mechanisms and media of transport (i.e., how the chemical moves and whether it moves through air, soil, or water); (3) the point of exposure (where actual or potential human contact with the chemical may occur); (4) the route of exposure (such as eating, drinking, inhaling, etc.); and (5) the receptor population (details about the people who may be exposed). If these elements are not present (or it is not reasonably possible for all of the pathway elements to be complete), ATSDR notes that the pathway is not completed. ATSDR presumes a completed exposure pathway occurred for on-site workers on May 7, 1998. In responding to the initial reports of workers affected on May 7, 1998, it appears officials from the New York City Fire Department used gas detection equipment to determine if the air was contaminated with certain chemicals. Specific reports [2] indicate at least one fire department official performed a screening for chlorine gas in the air but did not detect any significant levels. As the response to the incident continued to unfold during the afternoon of May 7, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) became aware of the incident. The NYSDEC has been conducting various air sampling activities on and around the Fresh Kills complex since at least 1994. In fact, the NYSDEC at one point in time operated an air sampling station near the barge unloading area where the May 7 incident occurred. The NYSDEC sampling station routinely collected a 24- hour air sample every sixth day during 1995 and 1996. Upon learning of the incident, the NYSDEC sent personnel to the Fresh Kills site and began collection of a 24-hour air sample at the unloading zone location at 6 p.m. on May 7, 1998 [11]. This sample was started approximately nine hours after the first worker became ill and four hours after work had been stopped at the unloading area.

The 24-hour air sample collected by the NYSDEC was the only available sampling data ATSDR was able to obtain regarding what chemicals may have caused the worker incident. ATSDR reviewed this data for any potential health effects that may result from this incident.

Evaluation of Health Impacts on Workers

Available Air Sampling Data

ATSDR has determined that the concentration of air contaminants measured in the NYSDEC air sample was below levels of public health concern. The NYSDEC reported analytical results for 39 volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Of the 39 VOCs reported by NYSDEC, 24 were below applicable ATSDR comparison values. ATSDR does not currently have comparison values for the other 13 compounds. However, the remaining 13 compounds were each less than 2 parts per billion, which, for these compounds, are below concentrations that are expected to cause acute health effects such as loss of consciousness, vomiting, or light-headedness in healthy workers.

Tables 1 and 2 summarize the 39 VOCs, the NYSDEC analytical results, and ATSDR's comparison values.

ATSDR Experience with Similar Worker Events at Other Facilities

Sources of gaseous air contaminants at the Fresh Kills Landfill capable of causing health effects after acute exposure may be divided into three categories (1) emissions resulting from the decomposition of refuse in the landfill, temporary staging areas, and barges; (2) air contaminants resulting from the disposal of chemicals in the garbage; and (3) air contaminants which result from use of diesel-powered cranes, haul trucks, and compactors.

Air contaminants from decomposition products of household refuse at Fresh Kills landfill are well documented [ 4, 5, 6]. Air contaminants include nitrogenous, organic, and sulfur compounds (e.g., ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrogen sulfide). Landfill gases capable of causing severe acute effects including the loss of consciousness typically occur at concentrations in the parts per million range. These concentrations of landfill gases are most likely to occur in confined or poorly ventilated enclosed spaces.

ATSDR is aware of only one report where exposure to toxic gases or vapors resulted in acute effects in landfill workers who were working outside of confined or enclosed spaces. An article in the German scientific literature describes an incident where 19 garbage workers were hospitalized after being exposed to a nitrogenous air contaminant at a garbage dump [12]. The source of the gas was unknown but believed to be the garbage. The Fresh Kills landfill contains nitrogenous leachate. It is possible that the nitrogen compounds were released into the air from the excavated material deposited at the unloading area.

The second potential source is inhalation exposure to toxic gases or vapors from the bulk handling of refuse containing chemicals. In theory, it is possible for disposed chemicals to be released in air during garbage transit or handling, resulting in sanitation workers being exposed to toxic gases or vapors. As noted previously, the Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Unit found a chlorine cylinder on the barge [2]; however, this report is not enough evidence to attribute the cause of the incident to chlorine exposure.

Emissions from diesel engines (which contain oxides of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons) are a third potential source of exposure. Exposure to diesel emissions in confined or enclosed areas has resulted in acute effects including mucous membrane irritation, headaches, light-headedness, and tingling in the extremities [13]. These symptoms are similar to those reported by the first two workers who became ill [9]. While this incident occurred in an open work area under stable atmospheric conditions, a large concrete bulkhead in the unloading area may have limited the dilution of diesel emissions. A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Health Hazard Evaluation of routine landfill operations in Ohio found higher concentrations of air contaminants inside the compactor's cab compared to the concentration of contaminants outside [14].

Based on the limited amount of available information, ATSDR is unable to determine the cause of the sanitation workers' acute illness.

ATSDR Child Health Initiative

ATSDR's Child Health Initiative recognizes that the unique vulnerabilities of infants and children demand special emphasis in communities concerned about contamination of air, soil, or water. Children are at greater risk than adults from certain kinds of exposures to hazardous substances released into their environment. Children may be more likely to be exposed to contaminants by playing outdoors, bringing food into contaminated areas, or breathing dust, soil, or heavy vapors closer to the ground (due to smaller height). Because children are smaller than adults, exposure may result in higher exposure doses per body weight. Also, children's developing body systems can sustain damage if toxic exposures occur during critical growth stages.

ATSDR evaluated the public health threat to children, as indicated by the available data from this worker exposure incident. ATSDR found that no exposures to children at levels of public health concern are indicated by the available data from the worker incident which occurred May 7, 1998.

Health Hazard Category

ATSDR concludes that the air quality conditions for workers on the Fresh Kills Landfill are within the "Indeterminate Public Health Hazard" category due to the lack of information regarding the source and development of exposure pathways.

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