Foul Odors from California Landfills Spark Public Health Outcry

By: Georgia McKoy | Last updated: Feb 22, 2024

In the Chiquita Canyon Landfill, located near Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, an underground fire has been persistently burning. 

This fire is releasing gases and vapors into the environment, leading to complaints from local residents about foul odors. A multiagency task force has been formed to tackle this issue, highlighting the severity of the situation and its potential impact on public health.

The Community's Struggle with Foul Odors

For days, residents near the landfill have been complaining about a foul odor permeating the air, raising alarm over potential health risks.

A view from a dry, grassy hilltop overlooking a sprawling suburban area with numerous houses closely packed together, extending into a valley with patches of greenery and trees

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Los Angeles Times reports that the toxic fumes are a result of an underground fire, complicating the efforts to address the community’s concerns.

Describing the Odor and Its Impact

Newsweek also reports that the odor emanating from the landfill has been described as “like a porta-potty” and “pretty horrendous” by South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) inspector Larry Israel during a hearing. 

A row of purple portable toilets is neatly arranged on a grassy field in a park, with dark trees in the background and a dramatic purple and pink sky above

Source: Julien Maculan/Unsplash

This has led many nearby residents to remain indoors or leave their homes or sleep in their cars to avoid exposure to the unbearable smell.

Rare Chemical Reaction Fuels Fire

Tony Briscoe, a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times, explains that the situation at Chiquita Canyon is the result of a rare chemical reaction.

An aerial view showing a large, expansive landfill site with mounds of mixed waste materials

Source: vieanet ramos/Unsplash

“We’ve only seen a handful of these across the nation,” Briscoe said to NewsNation. He notes that landfills are typically oxygen-free environments, and oxygen is crucial for combustion or ignition. This unique situation has made it challenging to manage and extinguish the fire.

Detection of Hazardous Chemicals

Newsweek reports that the landfill site has become a source of hazardous chemicals, including benzene, a known carcinogen, and dimethyl sulfide, which is considered acutely toxic. 

Doors of a storage facility with multiple warning signs, including “HAZARDOUS WASTE STORAGE”, “DANGER NO SMOKING NO OPEN FLAME NO SPARKS”

Source: G Schwan/Unsplash

These substances, among others, have been detected in the emissions from the landfill. The mix and reaction of discarded substances within the landfill are raising significant concerns about the health implications for the local population.

Risks Associated with Odor Levels

Marc Glass, a principal environmental consultant at Downstream Strategies, told Newsweek, “If the concentrations are above the odor threshold for the sulfide compounds, the odor thresholds are often lower than the health-based exposure benchmarks—so it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s an acute health risk associated with that.” 

An individual in a white protective suit and gas mask is carrying a bag while walking through a barren field, with a yellow warning sign displaying the biohazard symbol

Source: ArtPhoto_studio/freepik

He also noted the harmful effects of benzene, even at levels below the odor threshold, indicating that the presence of odors could signal health risks.


Health Implications of Benzene and Dimethyl Sulfide

Benzene can cause skin and eye irritation, genetic defects, and cancer, with prolonged or repeated exposure potentially damaging organs, per Newsweek.

A man with a short haircut and tattoos on his fingers covers his eyes with both hands

Source: Hermes Rivera/Unsplash

Dimethyl sulfide can cause skin, eye, and lung irritation, as well as dizziness and asphyxiation. The identification of these chemicals at the landfill highlights the potential health risks to the local community and workers on site.


Air Quality Monitoring Efforts

Newsweek reports that authorities have established air quality monitoring around the Chiquita Canyon site, and so far, there is no evidence suggesting that the nearby waterways have been contaminated.

A panoramic view of a rural setting featuring a small corral with white fencing in the foreground, surrounded by sparse greenery and scattered trees

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Efforts to control the emissions are ongoing, with the landfill operator taking steps to mitigate the impact of the hazardous substances contained within the landfill.


Hazardous Substances in Landfills

Glass further explained the nature of landfills, saying to Newsweek, “Landfills are all over and have a lot of hazardous substances in them,” including consumer products like paints and solvents that are discarded by consumers. 

Black and white image depicting a large landfill with scattered waste and a few visible tires. Smoke rises from the background, while several birds are seen flying above

Source: Collab Media/Unsplash

These can accumulate in significant amounts, posing challenges for managing hazardous waste streams effectively.


Multiagency Effort to Address Environmental and Health Issues

The EPA is leading a multiagency effort to address the environmental and public health issues at the landfill. 

A white flag bearing the logo of an environmental protection agency flutters in the breeze outside a classical government building

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Michael Brogan, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said to Newsweek that the task force’s “highest concerns are possible health and environmental impacts, especially those raised by community members.” 


Monitoring and Controlling Excess Emissions

Following a two-day hearing, Chiquita Canyon Landfill has been directed to continue monitoring and controlling the excess emissions.

An environmental professional clad in a white protective suit and gas mask holds a clipboard while standing amidst a large pile of assorted waste

Source: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

The Los Angeles Times reports that Megan Morgan, an attorney representing the landfill, expressed the site’s commitment to addressing the issue, saying, “Chiquita may not experience this issue in the same way that its neighbors do, but Chiquita and its employees are there on-site each day working hard as they can to address this issue.”


Challenges and Solutions in Containing the Reaction

The chemical reaction causing the release of gases and vapors is located deep under the surface, making it a complex issue to resolve.

A landscape of a landfill with piles of waste and dust partially obscuring the view. Smoke or steam is rising from the piles, and several birds are flying in the sky above

Source: Katie Rodriguez/Unsplash

Efforts to understand and stop the reaction involve considering various approaches, including possibly using inert gases to prevent oxygen from reaching the reactive material. The landfill operator has begun installing new gas collection wells and emission control devices to reduce emissions, per information from The Los Angeles Times.


The Landfill and Its Impact on Health

An independent study has found that odors emanating from the Chiquita Canyon Landfill are causing a range of short-term health effects on the residents living nearby, CBS News reports.

The photo captures the entrance of Chiquita Canyon Landfill with a prominent tan-colored sign featuring the landfill's logo and name in raised lettering. Behind the sign is a clear blue sky and a landscape of green hills

Source: Canyons News/Youtube

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department released these findings, highlighting the community’s exposure to potentially harmful smells. Symptoms identified include headaches, nasal congestion, and nausea among others, indicating the significant impact of landfill odors on local well-being.


Identifying the Symptoms

The health effects linked to the landfill odors are diverse, ranging from respiratory issues like coughing and chest tightness to more systemic effects such as heart palpitations and depression. 

An indoor shot of a woman sitting on a blue sofa, dressed in a white and yellow striped shirt with her hair in a ponytail, coughing into her hand. She is wearing glasses and has a tattoo on her arm

Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

This comprehensive list of symptoms was outlined in the study, illustrating the wide-reaching implications of the landfill’s operations on the health of adjacent communities.


Air Quality Concerns in the Vicinity

The study also touched upon the air quality near the landfill, comparing it to the broader Los Angeles County area. 

A scenic view of downtown Los Angeles captured at sunset

Source: Martin Adams/Unsplash

Interestingly, it found similar levels of volatile organic compounds, including benzene and carbon tetrachloride. This revelation suggests that while the landfill contributes to local odor issues, the overall air quality aligns with wider county trends, posing additional considerations for environmental health assessments, CBS News notes.


The Call for Relocation Amidst Ongoing Issues

The LA Times reveals that Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger has taken a firm stance, requesting the relocation of residents affected by an underground garbage fire at the landfill. 

Kathryn Barger stands behind a wooden podium, speaking into a microphone in an indoor setting with a stone wall background. She is wearing glasses and a dark business suit with a pin on the lapel

Source: kathrynbarger/X

In her communication with Waste Connections, she emphasized the unpredictable nature of the odor issue and the need for immediate action to safeguard the community’s health and quality of life.


The Extent of the Odor's Reach

The odors have not only affected those in close proximity to the landfill but have also been reported in areas as distant as Stevenson Ranch, as per The LA Times.

An image showing a large bulldozer moving waste at a landfill, with piles of garbage in the foreground and a dusty haze in the air. The landfill is situated in a valley with rolling hills in the background

Source: Canyons News/Youtube

Supervisor Barger’s office estimates that at least 900 households are suffering from the landfill’s malodors, indicating a significant community concern that extends beyond immediate neighborhoods.


Community Responses to Health Study Findings

The public release of the health study findings sparked vocal criticism from the community, with residents expressing dissatisfaction with the report’s conclusions. 

A man in a dark t-shirt appears distressed, pressing his hands against his temples, suggesting a severe headache or frustration. He is wearing a camouflage pattern face mask, which covers his nose and mouth

Source: Usman Yousaf/Unsplash

Val Verde resident Abigail DeSesa voiced her frustration, saying, “I’m sick of being sick. These symptoms may not give me cancer, but they have stolen my life. And they’re stealing all of these people’s lives. That’s not short-term.”


Odor Source and Health Implications

Further investigation into the odors confirmed the presence of sulfur compounds, which are likely contributing to the reported health symptoms. 

This is an aerial image of a large landfill area surrounded by hilly terrain. The landfill features open sections with visible trash accumulation and dirt-covered areas, indicating various stages of use and coverage

Source: CRD_LST/X

The LA Times reports that this link between sulfur compound exposure and health effects like difficulty breathing and heart palpitations has raised concerns among residents, who are experiencing the tangible impacts of the landfill’s emissions on their daily lives.


Challenges in Data Consistency

The LA Times explains that the landfill’s air monitoring data has shown discrepancies, particularly with independent air quality assessments, leading to confusion and skepticism among the affected residents. 

The image shows a vast area of a landfill from an aerial perspective. The landscape is characterized by large, exposed patches of earth, separated by dirt roads and sparse greenery. Heavy machinery is visible in the distance, working on the site

Source: Cody Clark/Youtube

Despite reports of high levels of hydrogen sulfide exceeding state exposure limits, the community is left questioning the reliability and completeness of the data presented.


Community Meeting Tensions

At community meetings, residents have openly challenged the findings of the health assessment, pointing out inconsistencies with their lived experiences, according to The LA Times.

A large yellow landfill compactor vehicle is actively working amidst a vast expanse of waste and debris. The image captures the machine as it compresses and maneuvers over piles of mixed trash, with the rugged terrain of the landfill site visible in the background

Source: SCVSignal/X

The skepticism towards the reported low cancer risk and other health assessments demonstrates the gap between official reports and the real-life impact of the landfill’s operations on the community.


Efforts to Address the Odor Concerns

In response to the outcry, Chiquita Canyon has initiated measures aimed at mitigating the odors, such as flaring off gases and attempting to contain the smell, The LA Times reports.

A large puddle of water that has gathered on the surface of the landfill site

Source: South Coast Air Quality Management District

However, challenges such as an ongoing underground fire and weather-related delays have hindered progress, leaving residents waiting for effective solutions to their concerns.


Residents' Pleas for Action

The community’s calls for immediate and effective action to address the landfill odor issue are growing louder. 

A group of individuals is gathered for a protest, holding signs with various messages. One sign reads "THINK of the CHILDREN," another states "NO MORE VALLEY OF THE DUMPS," and a third demands "KEEP YOUR PROMISE!". The protestors are standing outdoors in front of a building

Source: ckm_news/X

The LA Times explains that residents affected by the odors are demanding more than just promises, seeking tangible changes that will improve their living conditions and address the health risks posed by the landfill’s emissions.


Seeking Solutions and Relief

The situation at Chiquita Canyon Landfill has united the community in seeking solutions to the odor problem. 

An aerial image displaying an extensive landfill site with active construction equipment. The area is segmented by dirt roads, and multiple pieces of heavy machinery are scattered across the terrain, likely engaged in landfill operations

Source: Cody Clark/Youtube

As residents continue to advocate for their health and quality of life, the dialogue between the landfill operators, public health officials, and the community is critical in moving towards a resolution that addresses the immediate and long-term impacts of the landfill’s operations.