CPH researcher seeks community participation for Bristol landfill study
University of Kentucky College of Public Health (CPH) Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health Chair Erin Haynes, Ph.D., received a grant to investigate community concerns about foul smells and health symptoms related to a landfill in Bristol, a twin city that straddles the Tennessee/Virginia border. The two-year, $424,315 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences will measure air quality to identify residents’ indoor and outdoor exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and track health symptoms attributed to odors emanating from the landfill.
While the landfill no longer accepts waste and is currently taking steps to reduce emissions, it still emits foul odors. Residents have reported symptoms of burning eyes and throat, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, nosebleeds, and mental health effects since late 2020.
The landfill, which began accepting waste in 1998, is a repurposed limestone quarry. As such, it has other issues like groundwater and rainwater collection common to limestone quarries and requires more maintenance than typical landfills. Residents have noticed the landfill liner is compromised in some areas and gases can be seen venting between the liner and quarry walls.
In response to the ongoing issues with the landfill, Bristol residents created HOPE for Bristol (Healing Our Polluted Environment), an organization focused on charitable relief efforts, education, and science, to improve the lives of the residents, in 2021.
Joe Kellogg, HOPE for Bristol president, said he has experienced “constant, intense headaches, severe dehydration, burning eyes and sinuses, difficulty breathing along with neurological symptoms including tremors and numbness in fingers and toes.”
Kellogg added the foul odors worsen at night, and residents will stuff towels under their doors and put duct tape around the doors in an attempt to keep the odors out.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality created a plan of action to mitigate the airborne toxicants coming from the landfill. Haynes and her research team will measure the plan’s effectiveness.
“We want to see if this mitigation plan will work in improving air quality and reducing the foul smells experienced by the residents, and we also hope it decreases any symptoms associated with the landfill’s emissions,” said Haynes. “Hopefully, these results can be used by the city and state officials to improve the well-being of the residents.”
Haynes is partnering with Colorado State University (CSU) to collect air quality samples over the next year and half, employing an air sampling device created by John Volckens, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering and director of the CSU Center for Energy Development and Health.
“We developed this technology because, at the time, the state of the art for assessing personal exposure to air pollution was over 50 years old and it was loud, heavy, bulky, expensive, and could only be deployed in small numbers due to its complicated nature,” explained Volckens. “Our device uses a miniature air pump, that operates at ultrasonic frequencies, to draw VOCs into a collection tube. Because the pump vibrates at frequencies beyond the range of the human ear, it’s virtually silent.
“The device is small, lightweight and self-calibrating. It can be deployed by virtually anyone without being disruptive.”
While a mitigation plan is underway, it does not include air quality monitoring. Thus, Haynes is seeking 20 residents to participate in air quality monitoring. She also is looking for residents to participate in a health survey.
Local community partners will distribute and show residents how to use the air sampling devices. The residents will collect the samples themselves on days of particularly foul odor, while Haynes’ team will collect samples of “good air” days over the next year and half.
The samples will be sent to the CSU lab to be analyzed for specific VOCs. The full results from this study will be published in 2025.
“But we plan to be able to share what we learn with the community throughout the process,” said Haynes.
If you are a resident of Bristol, Tennessee and Virginia, and would like to participate in the survey or the air monitoring samples, visit https://cph.uky.edu/research/projects/bristol-landfill.
To learn more about the University of Kentucky College of Public Health’s people, programs, and passion for public health, visit cph.uky.edu.
Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R21ES035320. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.