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Landfills and Hazardous Waste Sites


What is a Landfill? A landfill is property set aside for the purpose of safe disposal of solid waste, either municipal (trash such as would come from homes) or hazardous (toxic chemicals, etc). "Hazardous waste" refers to any material that may pose an unreasonable risk to health, safety, or property – especially those materials that are toxic, corrosive, reactive, or ignitable.

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Properties are usually set aside for the safe treatment and/or disposal of such materials, away from access by the general public. If such a site is properly maintained, there is little hazard from living within the regulated limit of proximity to such a piece of property. However, if a landfill or hazardous waste site has been neglected or improperly maintained, serious health hazards could be a risk.

Sources of Hazardous Waste

Many processes can produce hazardous wastes. Hazardous wastes can come from locations such as:

  • Landfills
  • Auto repair shops, gas stations
  • Paper mills
  • Metal manufacturers
  • Cosmetics manufacturers
  • Dry cleaners
  • Power plants, nuclear reactors
  • Commercial farms
  • Mining operations
  • Hospitals and blood banks
  • Funeral homes

The federal and state governments closely regulate the transportation and disposal of such substances with the safety of the public in mind.

Health Effects

Living in proximity to a poorly maintained landfill or hazardous waste site can cause serious health effects, especially in children. Health effects from exposure to hazardous waste can include:

  • Cancer
  • Birth defects
  • Genetic mutations

Exposure to harmful chemicals can come from:

Air - Toxic chemicals from the soil can be vaporized in areas such as basements, causing high concentrations of hazardous chemical gases in the home.

Groundwater -
If harmful chemicals are present in the soil surrounding a water supply, they can seep into the water supply and cause harmful effects, even in small amounts.

- If a former landfill or waste site is developed as commercial or residential property without going through the proper abatement/remediation measures, soil can remain contaminated long after waste dumping has ceased. Harmful chemicals may be absorbed through the skin after contact with contaminated soil, and vegetables and other edible plants grown in such soil can absorb chemicals.

Some researchers have determined that the overall risk of birth defects may be increased slightly by living close to a hazardous waste site, but if the site is well maintained and proper habitation distances are observed, the risk is minimal.

Environmental Effects and Proximity Regulations

Since the environmental and health effects of landfills and hazardous waste sites can be extensive, the regulation of such sites is of great concern to the EPA and other government agencies. There are many restrictions and regulations regarding such sites, and all are designed with public safety in mind. Some of the regulations include:

  • Monitoring of groundwater and soil to ensure that chemical levels are within acceptable ranges
  • Use of liners (usually plastic sheets and layered clay) to prevent leakage of hazardous materials
  • Location restrictions to ensure that no potential leakage hazard could come from nearby geological attributes such as faults and wetlands
  • Safe operating practices regarding the control of waste exposure, etc.
  • Closure regulations concerning the safe maintenance and monitoring of closed landfills and hazardous waste sites
  • Corrective action for any potential leakages from waste sites

Although present safety measures address the usage of former landfill sites as commercial or residential property, due to possible past errors in property record keeping, it is still possible for developers to unknowingly purchase and develop or resell land that was used for waste disposal purposes. Before buying property or a home, even one that is brand new, you should research the land to ascertain whether it was previously used as a landfill or toxic waste dump.

Property Values

Proximity to landfills and hazardous waste sites can severely affect property values. Any property close to an active landfill will probably be devalued as a matter of course. Depending on how close the property lies to the site, whether the site is still active, and (if not active) if the waste has been properly encapsulated or removed, the value of a tract of land or home could be affected in many different ways. For example, if an active landfill is declared "closed" and proper measures are taken to ensure that there is no risk of contamination from the waste therein, the value of a nearby property may rise from the low value it had from being located near an active waste site. Devalued property may further regain some of its previous value if the former waste site is improved or developed commercially. However, if the waste site is not properly closed and encapsulated, or if waste leaks into the surrounding properties while or after it is active, property values may be irreversibly lowered.

Exposure Reduction

There is very little a homeowner can do to reduce exposure to chemicals from a nearby waste site; it is the job of the waste site’s overseers to make sure that harmful chemicals do not escape the waste site. It is likely that if there is a serious health risk from a nearby waste site, then the surrounding property may become unlivable (i.e., well-water may become undrinkable, or the soil may be irreversibly contaminated). The best course of action to take when purchasing or living on property near to an active or former waste site is to be informed and follow the precautionary measures (such as regular soil and water testing) recommended by your local health department or the EPA.

For more information about landfills and hazardous waste sites:

Environmental Protection Agency

EPA Office of Solid Waste

Department of Housing and Urban Development:


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