Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Sulfur Dioxide

Sulfur dioxide is a gas with a strong odor that is released into the air through coal and oil burning. People can be exposed to sulfur dioxide by inhaling contaminated air. Workers at facilities where it is made as a by-product (such as power plants and fertilizer manufacturing plants) are most at risk, but anyone who lives near areas where sulfur dioxide is made may be in danger too.

Breathing low levels of sulfur dioxide can cause mild symptoms such as fatigue, headache, and nausea. At higher levels, sulfur dioxide causes more serious respiratory effects such as chest tightness and difficulty breathing. It also exacerbates existing respiratory diseases such as asthma. Children may be especially vulnerable to sulfur dioxide because they breathe larger volumes of air relative to their body weight than adults do. Studies have shown that children exposed so sulfur dioxide may develop more respiratory illnesses and make more emergency room visits than other children. They may even develop other respiratory problems as they get older. Children with asthma seem to be particularly sensitive to sulfur dioxide exposure.

The Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill just north of St. Louis, Missouri is a 52 acre site that extends 240 feet below ground and accepted solid waste from 1985 to 2004. In 2010, testing indicated the landfill had an underground fire, with this combustion ultimately releasing gases including sulfur dioxide above ground. Residents in the surrounding area reported strong odors of sulfur dioxide even after gas and odor mitigation systems were put into place in 2013. The fire continued to burn for years, resulting in continued gas and odor emissions despite the mitigation systems.

A 2018 report by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services concluded that residents may have inhaled harmful levels of sulfur dioxide until mitigation and remediation efforts in 2013 when sulfur dioxide levels were more than ten times higher than health-based guidelines. The report also acknowledged that residents may have experienced psychological effects of emissions, noting that offensive odors like sulfur dioxide are known to cause stress, irritability, impaired mood, anxiety, depression, and decreased quality of life.

Despite mitigation and air monitoring efforts, the people who live near the Bridgeton Landfill are still breathing and smelling sulfur dioxide. The grassroots group Just Moms STL works to educate the community and fight for comprehensive cleanup. In particular, they note how children may be especially vulnerable to these chemicals and that there are several schools, daycares, and parks within 3 miles of the landfill. Even more distressing, the landfill is part of a larger landfill area called the West Lake landfill that contains radioactive waste, so uncontrolled underground fires could be catastrophic. Just Moms STL has brought national attention to these sites, forced increased transparency from government agencies, and recently won a $253 million cleanup of the West Lake site. These are exciting successes towards their goal of a secure and permanent solution to keeping their community safe.

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