Lighting Up Landfill Gases Ain’t as Safe as You Think!

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Some super-smart folks at RUDN University teamed up with a brain from JUST to shine a light on something pretty dicey. Turns out torching up landfill gases might not be the eco-high-five we thought it was. This research, fresh off the press in Atmospheric Pollution Research, is saying that lighting up these gases could actually be doing more harm than good for our green planet and our health. So, it’s like, if you thought we were nailing it with that whole flaring biz, we might have to think again.

Look, we all thought torching landfill gas was the clever hack to keep methane in check—but guess what? The eco-dream team at RUDN University, with a little backup from Professor Hani Abu-Qdais of JUST fame, crunched the numbers and came back with a reality check. They scooped up air samples at the dump and around people’s digs to see if those flares were really the superheroes we made them out to be. Spoiler alert: they’re not. Sure, we’re cutting down on methane with a quick flare-up, but it’s kinda like fixing a leaky faucet while your kitchen’s underwater. The air’s still a cocktail of nasties that’s no bueno for our lungs.

Anna Kurbatova, PhD, from the eco-savvy squad at RUDN University, breaks it down for us: “Without proper management, landfills harm health and the environment. This is especially true for Russia, where until recently 87% of generated solid waste was disposed of in landfills. Volatile organic compounds are a special class of pollutants. They are potentially dangerous to landfill workers and the public as carcinogens. Exposure to them, even in extremely low concentrations, can cause cancer. In addition, an unpleasant odor remains a big problem.” 

RUDN used the Kuchino landfill near Moscow as their lab. This joint shut its doors back in 2017 and it’s currently getting a makeover to look all pretty and eco-friendly again. But, get this – the gases that are still chillin’ underneath are now being set on fire. The research squad did a little detective work to measure the levels of VOCs—those sneaky, invisible baddies—right at the source in the landfill, and then again after the fires in the neighborhoods nearby. They didn’t just check it out once; they rocked up four times across 2020, hitting up the spot in winter, spring, summer, and autumn to see how the seasons played a part.

So, these eco-detectives didn’t just kick back after sampling the smoky air. They dug a little deeper and hit paydirt—finding a whopping 30 different volatile organic compounds lurking at the landfill. Creeping into the ‘burbs, 20 of those sneaky VOCs were still hanging around after the burn. And here’s the kicker: the folks working the landfill were basically marinating in a high-stakes blend of these risky chemicals, both the kind that can mess with your cells and the non-mutant varieties.

But the real heavy at this chemical showdown? Carbon tetrachloride. This nasty piece of work was the big cheese, responsible for over 60% of the toxic shindig both in the landfill and around the block. For the neighborhood peeps, the regular toxic stuff was chill, but carcinogenic VOCs were off the chart. And the archvillain in this saga? Good ol’ chloroform, who apparently didn’t get the memo that we’re not living in a 19th-century detective novel. Yeah, this baddie brought a startling 80% of the cancer risk right to everyone’s doorstep. Talk about a bad neighbor!

“Our findings highlight the need for urgent action to mitigate the impact to protect the health of workers and residents. Flaring does not magically solve the problem of VOC emissions. Rather, on the contrary, it leads to the formation of extremely toxic VOCs,” Anna Kurbatova, PhD, Associate Professor of the Department of Environmental Safety and Product Quality Management of RUDN University said.