Study: Landfill Gas Is a 'Major Pathway' for PFAS Contamination

Researchers say gases and liquid by-products from three landfills tested in Florida contained PFAS called fluorotelomer alcohols — potentially toxic forever chemicals that can float in the air for long distances.

As landfill waste decomposes, it produces gas that escapes into the air, much like belching, which releases excess gas from the digestive system. This decomposition process also produces liquid by-products called leachates that seep through the ground.

Both by-products can contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) AKA forever chemicals. These chemicals remain in the environment for years and have been found in drinking water, food items like kale, and even humans. They have been linked to several health conditions, including thyroid cancer and heart disease in women, and may increase the ability for cancer to spread.

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Landfill structures typically capture and treat leachates before allowing them to enter the environment. However, gas is a different story. While it can be captured within the landfill, it often escapes untreated into the air. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, 84% of PFAS dumped in landfills remains solid waste, 5% escapes as landfill gas, and 11% leaves via leachate.

Since landfills are dumping grounds for products containing these chemicals, scientists from the University of Florida wondered if decomposition and its gaseous by-product could carry PFAS into the atmosphere when it escapes.

To investigate this further, the researchers tested three landfill sites in Florida. They pumped gas emitted from the landfills through resin-filled cartridges capable of capturing forever chemicals. Then, the team tested the resin containers for 27 neutrally charged PFAS, including fluorotelomer alcohols (6:2 FTOH).

Fluorotelomer alcohols are used in plastic coatings on wrappers and other food packaging. Research suggests they can accumulate in the fat, plasma, and liver of rats and persist in the animals' bodies for over one year. Still, whether they are toxic to humans remains unclear.

The study's results, published on June 26 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, showed that some fluorotelomer alcohol levels were up to two orders of magnitude (a change in quantity or unit) higher than those found at other landfills.

Moreover, three types of fluorotelomer alcohols were the most prevalent airborne contaminants in the gas at each site.

When the research team collected leachate from the landfills, they calculated that the annual amount of PFAS emitted by landfill gas could be equal to or greater than the amounts emitted by leachates.

While some landfills burn gaseous emissions for energy, the team suggests that more research is needed to determine if this method removes PFAS from the gas.

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Moreover, they say that officials should consider mitigation strategies to reduce the amount of forever chemicals allowed to escape into the air, which would help lower the risk of exposure to these potentially harmful contaminants.

Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that manufacturers in the U.S. are no longer using coatings that contain PFAS in food packaging material. Although this will help reduce the amount of PFAS entering landfills, products that already exist in these sites will continue to decompose for years.

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