Landfills May Release Large Amounts of PFAS “Forever Chemicals” As Air Pollution, Study Warns

Previously unidentified gases released from waste disposal sites may be a major pathway for introducing toxic PFAS into the environment.

Despite advanced technologies aimed at curbing landfill air pollution risks, a new study reveals that waste disposal sites are likely a major vector for introducing toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) gases into the air.

In findings published this week in the medical journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, researchers from the University of Florida found that landfills emit several types of toxic PFAS, as the chemicals and products they were used to manufacture begin to break down.

Often referred to as “forever chemicals”, PFAS include a group of more than 9,000 man-made substances widely used to resist grease, oil and water. However, they are known to build up in the human body, and there is now a growing body of research linking exposure to the chemicals to a myriad of adverse health effects linked to the chemicals, including testicular cancer, kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis and other side effects.

Most of the PFAS health concerns have stemmed from water contamination problems caused by the large volumes of the chemicals in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which have been used by the military and firefighters for decades to fight fuel-based fires. During training and response exercises, these PFAS chemicals have been dumped into the environment and local water supplies, particularly around military bases, airports and firefighter training locations, causing many communities to have dangerous levels of the chemicals in their drinking water.

3M Company, DuPont, Chemguard, Inc., Tyco Fire Products and other manufacturers of chemicals and fire safety products already face thousands of PFAS water contamination lawsuits brought by local water providers and individuals diagnosed with various types of cancer after directly ingesting the chemicals. The companies also face hundreds of firefighter cancer lawsuits over exposure to AFFF, following absorption of the chemicals through the skin or air.

However, the findings of this new study lead by Dr. Timothy Townsend, a professor of Environmental Engineering Sciences, highlight additional pathways that may lead to PFAS exposure risks from air pollution, which the researchers say may be significantly higher than previously believed.

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PFAS Landfill Air Pollution Risks

PFAS can potentially escape landfills in two ways: first, and most well-known, through liquid byproducts known as leachate, which can potentially contaminate groundwater supplies or nearby surface waters if the landfill is not properly designed or maintained. The second vector, previously thought to be a minor concern, is in the form of gases.

While many landfills are required to have technology to capture toxic gases generated at waste sites, like carbon dioxide and methane, some gases are still vented from the sites.

Townsend and his team captured vented gases from three Florida municipal solid waste landfills through special collectors, filtering them and assessing how much PFAS was released and which types. Over the course of sampling, the researchers discovered a significantly higher amount of PFAS emissions than they expected, particularly from fluorotelomer alcohol (FTOH), which is believed to be toxic.

The researchers found that PTOH constituted between 87-97% of total PFAS released. They noted that the level of PFAS leaving the landfill in gas form was comparable or greater to that leaving the landfill in the form of leachate.

“These findings suggest that landfill gas, a less scrutinized byproduct, serves as a major pathway for the mobility of PFAS from landfills,” Townsend’s team concluded.

In a press release issued in tandem with the report, the American Chemical Society, which runs the journal that published Townsend’s study, noted that the PFAS comes from consumer products made by manufacturers who use PFAS in children’s clothing, cosmetics, and other products.

“Because landfills are repositories for PFAS, this work indicates that vented gas from these sites should be considered in future mitigation and management strategies to reduce potential inhalation exposure and release to the environment,” the ACS press release states. “Some landfills burn the vapors or trap them for energy production, and the team suggests that further research is needed to determine the degree of removal these treatments provide for airborne contaminants.”

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