BRISTOL, Tenn. — Daylight streamed through the many windows at the front of the Dorsey family’s house on a Tuesday afternoon, illuminating what appeared to be a picture of serenity— at least at first glance.
Built on an old rock quarry and mired in $35 million worth of debt as well as actual trash, the Bristol, Virginia landfill has long been a sore spot for the city. Multiple city officials and consultants for the city have said they think the landfill isn’t the only source of the air pollution.
In the living room of the Taylor Street home, located just below the Virginia-Tennessee state line, a white-footed cat named Mittens rolled back and forth on the carpet at the foot of the couch where Amanda and Jonathan Dorsey sat. The chatter of their two children, playing with a friend during a homeschooling break, drifted in from a side room.
The air filter sitting in one corner of the living room was white, ottoman-sized and easy to overlook. But Amanda Dorsey, 38, said she and her husband routinely check the device’s air pollution measurements.
Jonathan Dorsey, 36, brought out another machine, a tiny computer he built to measure air temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs: a class of organic chemicals found in a slew of artificial products and associated with air pollution. The couple usually has yet another air monitoring device standing sentry, but they loaned it to a friend who wanted to try it at her house, she said.
“The VOC level goes up on bad nights,” she said of the third device.
The Dorseys are one of many families in the Twin City that have, in recent months, experienced an overpowering stench — both outside and inside their homes. Like other residents, they report experiencing health problems when the odors are present: burning eyes and throats, headaches, tightness in the chest. The Dorseys’ default reaction is to head to a relative’s house, Amanda Dorsey said.
“It’s just like, close the doors, get in the car as fast as possible, we’ve got to get out of here now,” she said. “That’s how bad it is.”
Meanwhile, the couple has been laboring to figure out what’s in the air that could be making them miserable, and not just through their own trio of air monitors.
In December 2020, the Bristol, Virginia landfill, which city officials say is responsible for at least some of the area’s odor issues, began gathering and analyzing air samples at the facility and in surrounding neighborhoods.
So did the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
The Dorseys spent hours researching the VOCs detected in some of those samples. On Wednesday, two days after the city published a draft of a plan for handling future complaints about the pollution going forward, the couple said they were glad to see that the plan proposes more air testing at and around the landfill. But she said the initial samples contain enough evidence for her.
“[They] mostly confirmed what we already knew, that there was something harmful in the air,” she said. “You know it’s unhealthy. … It’s not good for you.”
‘Why can’t I stay awake?’
The Dorseys still struggle to describe the intense, noxious odor that began permeating their house last November, but he said it’s something “chemical-like ... really acrid, really pungent.”
He said it’s easier to describe how their bodies respond to it. Jonathan Dorsey said he gets a burning sensation in his throat and chest. The couple’s 9-year-old, Ethan, and 6-year-old, Ava, complain of headaches.
Amanda Dorsey said that when the odors are around longer, she and her husband also get headaches and feel a tightness in their chests. And in December, during a particularly relentless stretch of experiencing the odors, she felt unusually lethargic.
“After breathing it, when the smell was so strong inside the house, I’m just wondering, ‘What is wrong with me? Why can’t I stay awake?’” she recalled. “I felt ... my body was changing.”
She went to her doctor, who said that she was anemic based on her bloodwork, and that her symptoms sounded premenopausal — but the doctor said she was too young for that.
The air samples
Meanwhile, that same month, both city officials and DEQ staff began separately collecting and analyzing air samples at the landfill, as well as in some neighborhoods where the smells were occurring.
Ernie Hoch — who manages solid waste and environmental services for Draper Aden Associates and has been consulting for the city on the landfill — said that some of the city’s samples tested for methane, oxygen, carbon monoxide, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. All are gases commonly produced by landfills, he said.
Hoch said that those air samples, taken over a few days in late December in various neighborhood spots that seemed to be problem areas, didn’t yield any unusual levels of those gases.
His team did find a spot at the actual landfill leaking high levels of carbon monoxide and low levels of oxygen and methane — something Hoch said they’re now investigating, since it suggests some kind of chemical reaction could be occurring below the surface.
“But once this [carbon monoxide] vents out in the air, it dissipates to a level that’s harmless,” Hoch said. “This level would never have any effect on anybody more than 10 feet away from where the vent is. It’s very isolated.”
‘That stuff sits there, like a cloud’
The more attention-worthy samples, at least so far, are the ones that tested for volatile organic compounds. VOCs are a family of chemicals found in a huge variety of household, office and industrial products — everything from aerosol sprays and permanent markers to pesticides and gasoline.
The health risks of those chemicals vary widely. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, direct, short-term exposure to some of them, especially indoors, can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and nausea. Prolonged exposure to some can cause more serious health impacts such as cancer. And when they’re released outside and mix with other gases in the air, VOCs can also generate ozone, a pollutant known to cause health problems.
“Those gases are all heavier than air. So what that means is, they cling to the ground,” Dan Costa, an adjunct professor for the University of North Carolina’s Department of Environment Sciences and Engineering and former national research program director for the EPA’s Air, Climate and Energy Research Program, said of VOCs.
“Particularly in times where there’s not a lot of wind ... usually except during thunderstorms, that stuff sits there, like a cloud,” Costa said.
In late December and early January, at the landfill and a handful of spots in surrounding neighborhoods, the city and DEQ began separately testing outdoor air for VOCs. The results from those months, as well as later samples taken by both groups, showed a hodgepodge of VOCs, some of which can cause both short- and long-term health impacts.
Amanda and Jonathan Dorsey said they’ve essentially gone through a crash course in landfill gases in the past few months. After they started complaining to city officials about the odors, the couple also began doing their own research on air pollutants commonly associated with landfills, she said.
Once they obtained copies of some of the air sample reports showing VOCs, they turned their focus to those chemicals. The reports weren’t exactly light reading. Some of the substances in the samples are 20 or more letters long and difficult to even pronounce—dibromochloromethane, trichlorofluoromethane, methyl-tert-butyl ether.
Jonathan Dorsey, an IT consultant, said he approached the material the way he approaches any other problem: break it down into manageable pieces. In this case, that meant researching each individual chemical, he said.
“We started googling — what symptoms do they cause, what are the recommended limits for exposure, both short- and long-term, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “There’s a lot there and it took a long time to parse through it all. But that’s essentially what we did. …”
“It’s a lot of research,” she said.
Amanda Dorsey added that the air samples, along with a February sample of liquid the couple also obtained from the landfill, left her feeling particularly concerned about a VOC called benzene. It was detected in all of the samples the Dorseys sifted through.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, benzene is a sweet-smelling chemical found in gas, crude oil and cigarette smoke, as well as a wide array of industrial materials and household products. Direct, short-term exposure to it can cause eye, nose and lung irritation. Long-term exposure — which the CDC defines as lasting a year or more — can cause a host of problems in the blood system, including leukemia, a cancer that occurs in blood-forming tissues.
She said she noticed that benzene can also cause anemia, which she was diagnosed with in December, after experiencing other unusual symptoms and going to the doctor.
“It [was] really overwhelming,” she said of the research. “It’s very stressful.”
The official response: No acute public health concern
Both the city and DEQ officials said that the levels of benzene and other VOCs that showed up in their outdoor air samples didn’t set off any alarm bells for immediate action.
Hoch, for example, said that the benzene and other VOCs in the city’s air tests were all detected at “relatively low levels,” and that the samples with the highest VOC levels were at the actual landfill.
“So the rationale would be that if you’re getting that [higher] reading at the edge of the landfill, a mile away, being diluted with all that air, your parts per million or billion” — the concentration of VOC particles in the air — “are going to be much less.”
But Hoch also stressed that he and the others working on the landfill repairs are engineers, not health experts.
“Whether it’s a health issue, that really is something that the health department or a health official would have to take a look at, at [that] person’s home,” Hoch said.
Crystal Bazyk, the enforcement and air compliance and monitoring manager for DEQ’s Southwest Regional Office, said she and her team discussed the agency’s own tests for VOCs in the air with officials at the Virginia Department of Health and a national-level health agency.
“As far as acute public health concern — that means [something that would require] immediate action — they haven’t seen anything yet,” Bazyk said.
Two of DEQ’s Dec. 28 air samples did exceed a benzene threshold set by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, though. One sample, taken at a spot at the landfill near the Highlands Juvenile Detention Center, detected benzene present at 44.8 parts per billion; the other, taken at the intersection of Booher Road and Willow Oak Court, showed that chemical present at 21.8 parts per billion.
In a Jan. 12 email to Bazyk about the samples, Lora Siegmann Werner, a regional director for ATSDR, said the agency’s minimal risk threshold for benzene is 9 parts per billion. That means that by ATSDR’s standards, if someone is exposed to more than 9 parts per billion of benzene once or for up to two weeks, they face more than a minimal risk of health problems from the exposure.
But Werner sandwiched that information in caveats: It’s tricky to measure substances in the air outside that could be directly responsible for odor problems, she said. She added that most of those odors aren’t at levels that are harmful, and that the symptoms they can cause generally “go away when the odor is gone.”
“People can smell and react to certain chemicals in the air before they are at harmful toxic effect levels. …” Werner added. “Those odors can become a nuisance and bother people, causing temporary symptoms such as headache and nausea that can affect quality of life.”
Not buying it
All of that should mean there’s nothing to worry about, right?
Amanda Dorsey said she’s not buying it — not just because of what she and her husband have learned about the health impacts of benzene and other VOCs, but because they physically can’t bear to stay inside their house when the smells are present, she said.
“They run their tests, and according to their tests, this isn’t unhealthy,” she said. “But they can’t take the people’s word, saying, you know, we’re having these symptoms — that’s been completely ignored.”
Wilma Subra isn’t buying it, either.
Subra, a Louisiana-based chemist, is president of Subra Co., a chemistry lab and environmental consulting firm, as well as a technical adviser to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. She’s spent decades helping people in Louisiana and across the country make sense of and combat toxic chemicals in their communities, work that won her a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1999.
At the Bristol Herald Courier’s request, Subra reviewed the December and January air samples run by DEQ and the city. (Samples taken later, in March and April, weren’t available yet at that time.) She said the results were “very concerning.”
The 25 VOCs detected in those samples — including benzene — “have the potential to result in extensive cumulative acute health impacts and long-term cumulative impacts due to chronic exposure,” Subra wrote in her review.
What about the statement from DEQ that there weren’t any health concerns requiring immediate action?
“That’s usually the response you get,” Subra said.
She said that even when these chemicals are detected at levels lower than the various standards set for them, you have to consider “the cumulative impact of all of those chemicals added together.”
Both Subra and Costa, the former EPA air program director, also said that some groups of people are more sensitive to VOCs and other toxins in the environment — children, for example, and people with underlying health conditions.
And Subra said that there isn’t enough data yet to really determine the health risks faced by the residents experiencing the air pollution. Collectively, DEQ and the city gathered several more air samples at the landfill and surrounding neighborhoods in March and April, and those samples all showed lower VOC levels than the ones from December and January. But the exact locations of multiple samples — including the initial ones — aren’t clear, so it’s hard to tell how much the air quality is really improving.
“The issue becomes, where was the data collected? How often was it collected? And was it collected at the worst ... situations or not?” Subra said.
“These initial data indicate it’s an issue of concern,” she said of the air samples. “And more data is needed to totally understand how frequently these chemicals are present in the air where the community lives.”
In response to Subra’s perspective, City Manager Randy Eads said the odor problems have been “concerning” to him for several months.
“We began air sampling for VOCs in December and have continued to take samples since that time,” he said. “I’ll be more than happy to speak with any air quality expert you have consulted with recently. The more information I have about the air quality, the better decisions I can make moving forward.”
On Monday, Eads published a number of announcements about Bristol, Virginia’s work on the odor crisis: a new page on the city website dedicated to landfill repair updates, an official odor complaint response form, an odor management plan and a draft of a plan for handling odor complaints.
The latter is still awaiting approval from DEQ, but it calls for additional air sampling — some of which has already begun.
“Starting on March 20, 2021, the city will conduct baseline [air] sampling at the landfill,” the draft states. “The baseline sampling will include monthly, 24-hour composite air samples for a period of three months. … Additional on-site sampling may be conducted at the discretion of the city.”
The draft also states that when the city receives an odor complaint from a resident in one of the areas reporting the problems, a landfill employee (or a third party, if they choose to contract outside help) will visit the location while the odor is still occurring, if possible, and collect samples of the air in that moment. If DEQ approves the plan, the results and analyses of those samples will be shared in a monthly report.
“That’s a good start,” Subra said of the proposal. “But [it depends] on the community’s calling in the complaints, and the city’s being able to go out every time an odor complaint is called in.”
“Looks like they are starting to take the right steps, but we are already seven months in,” Jonathan Dorsey said.
He said that the smells haven’t been as consistently strong inside the family’s house over the past few months, but they’re “still definitely happening.” The week of April 25 through May 1, they spent two nights at his sister’s house because of the smells.
Amanda Dorsey said that after three years on Taylor Street, they are thinking of moving because of the odors — and not to somewhere else in Bristol.
“I wanted to commit to a school for the kids this year, next fall. And … I can’t do that,” she said. “It just makes me uneasy for the kids to be here and not exactly know the risks associated with what they’ve been breathing.”
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