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The University of Southampton

The dangers from landfill gas – are we doing enough to protect our health and the environment?

Published: 14 October 2021
Ian Williams
Ian Williams

A leading expert in environmental science at the University of Southampton has highlighted the dangers of landfill gases, the risks they pose to our health and the significant contribution they make to man-made global warming.

Writing in The ConversationProfessor Ian Williams explores the consequences of a recent high-court ruling by judge, Mr Justice Fordham, that found five-year-old Matthew Richards’ respiratory health problems were being made worse by fumes from nearby Walleys Quarry landfill site in Silverdale. The ruling stated that more needs to be done to protect the public from landfill gas with hydrogen sulphide being reduced to one part per billion – less than an eighth of current levels – by January 2022.

Ian is Professor of Applied Environmental Science and has been arguing for two decades that we should substantially limit the amount of waste we bury, prevent waste where possible and encourage reuse. He says the right infrastructure to repair and recycle waste, and efficient collection services, are needed for the public to be able to manage their own waste more sustainably.

He said: “Fumes from landfill sites tend to be a mixture of hundreds of different gases. These are formed by the decomposition of rotting food and other biological waste by bacteria; reactions between chemicals found in landfills, especially industrial wastes; and certain chemicals such as ammonia transforming from liquids and solids into vapour.

“Different gases have been linked to unpleasant health effects among populations living close to landfill sites and site workers, including low birth weights and birth defects, but no consistent pattern has been proven. Reports from those living close to landfills highlight regular headaches, fatigue, itchy eyes, sleeplessness and stress.”

In the article, he explains how these gases form underground and slowly trickle to the surface where they can be carried by the wind, with landfill gases even moving through the soil and entering homes near the site, or accumulating in basements, car parks, drainage pipes and tunnels nearby.

He compares England to Germany where there are only about 160 landfill sites, while there are currently more than 570 landfill sites in England and waste disposed via landfill actually increased by four per cent in 2019.

He said: “Politicians in England have failed dismally to provide the right leadership and waste policies to transition from landfill towards a circular economy, where waste is transformed from an inconvenience into a useful resource. For the protection of public health and the environment, it’s time to bury landfills forever.”

Read the full article on The Conversation website.

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