A Public Health Assessment Tool Used to Analyze the Health and Safety Effects of a Major Landfill Landslide

Article excerpt

Introduction

On March 9, 1996, a landslide of unprecedented magnitude occurred at Ohio's largest solid waste landfill. Approximately 20 acres of the existing grandfathered landfill slid into an 11-acre section of recently constructed but unlined landfill [ILLUSTRATION FOR PHOTO OMITTED]. The landslide exposed approximately 1.5 million cubic yards of old garbage. In addition, a 200-foot- high vertical scarp remained where the waste mass had broken away from the landfill.

The Rumpke Sanitary Landfill, located in Colerain Township, Hamilton County, Ohio [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], is licensed to operate by the Hamilton County General Health District and permitted by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) to accept up to 8,600 tons of solid waste per day. The landfill accepts waste for disposal from 750,000 residential customers in 63 counties and 150 municipalities in three states (Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana) and is also permitted to dispose of waste containing asbestos (1).

Within hours of the slide, the health commissioner and Hamilton County General Health District personnel arrived at the site. It looked as if a miniature Mount St. Helens had erupted. Gaseous vapors were observed emanating from the exposed garbage. The odor - a musty, rotting garbage smell - was strong. The possible release of hazardous substances, exposing people and the environment, concerned health district personnel. Worker safety became a focus of concern. Local media - TV, radio, and newspapers - started covering the Rumpke landslide. Citizens living near the landfill complained of odors and questioned the health effects. Children in nearby schools complained of nausea and headaches. In the eyes of many, the Rumpke Sanitary Landfill had become a public health hazard and nuisance.

The health district staff needed a decision-making tool that would enable them to quickly decide whether to order an evacuation, as well as to determine what kinds of health and safety measures to implement and to understand which residents were most affected by the landslide. The public health assessment process was that tool. The purpose of this article is to explain the process used to assess the severity of the public health hazard and to determine the public health response plan to be implemented.

Public Health Assessment

A public health assessment is a method of organizing and systematically reviewing environmental and health data to establish the presence and magnitude of a public health impact. This tool has a somewhat different focus than do risk assessments and comparative risk assessments. Public health assessments use data from a variety of sources to address community concerns and to determine the public health implications of the hazardous site; they are site-specific and qualitative. Risk assessments usually serve regulatory purposes, such as prioritizing site remediation efforts or establishing appropriate cleanup levels (2). Comparative risk assessments, which are used by communities to set their environmental priorities, involve diverse members of the community (e.g., lay people, scientists, elected officials) in comparing categories of risk.

Between March 11 and March 18, 1996, the Hamilton County General Health District convened an interdisciplinary team of professionals to conduct a public health assessment of the landslide site. The team consisted of the following district staff members: health commissioner; medical director; directors of nursing, water quality and waste management, and environmental health; public health nurses; and sanitarians. The health district consulted professionals from the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services, the Cincinnati Health Department, OEPA, the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (CDC-ATSDR), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). …