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Walleys Quarry: Frequently asked questions

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have provided the following public health messages and advice to members of the public affected by the Walleys Quarry landfill site, along with answers to frequently asked questions. 

Key messages and advice

  • Average concentrations of hydrogen sulphide measured in November 2021 were lower than the period March to May 2021, but the potential for day-to-day odour complaints to occur remains significant and longer-term risks to health cannot be completely excluded without further improvement of air quality
  • Odours are more likely to occur overnight and in the early hours of the morning when weather conditions are calm and still. Close windows in the evenings if there is an outdoor odour, and open them in the morning once any outdoor odour has reduced
  • Weather forecasts predict the direction the wind will be from and can help you decide whether to open or close windows to reduce exposure indoors
  • When your property is downwind (ie, the direction the wind is forecast to be from is the same direction from your property as the landfill), closing windows can help reduce exposure indoors
  • When your property is upwind (ie, the direction the wind is forecast to be from is not the same direction from your property as the landfill), opening windows can reduce any residual odour indoors
  • Report nuisance odours whenever they occur to the Environment Agency using their online form
  • Report symptoms and odours on a daily basis to Staffordshire County Council using their online form
  • Contact NHS111 or your GP if you have concerns about your individual circumstances and require health advice
  • For the latest updates on the regulation of the landfill, visit the Environment Agency’s Citizen Space website

UKHSA’s current assessment of risks to public health

  • Monitoring of outdoor air quality from March 2021 onwards shows periods when hydrogen sulphide concentrations exceeded health-based guideline values
  • Monitoring data show concentrations have been above the World Health Organization odour annoyance guideline value for a considerable percentage of the time
  • Odours can become a nuisance and cause temporary symptoms such as headache, nausea, dizziness, watery eyes, stuffy nose, irritated throat, cough or wheeze, sleep problems and stress, particularly when concentrations exceed odour guidelines on a regular basis, and this is reflected by effects reported by residents
  • Individuals react differently to odour, and symptoms are more likely if someone has a pre-existing respiratory condition, sleep problem or stress
  • Long-term (lifetime) risks to physical health are likely to be small, but a risk to health cannot be completely excluded, especially if exposure exceed guidelines for continuous exposure over a person’s lifetime
  • Short-term transient health effects may be experienced such as irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. People who have health conditions that affect breathing, such as asthma, may experience increased frequency and/or severity of symptoms. With continuing exposure these effects may be prolonged, but are not anticipated to continue long-term, once exposure has decreased to acceptable levels
  • The most recent UKHSA detailed monthly risk assessment is available from the Environment Agency’s Citizen Space website

How are public health risks assessed and managed by the responding organisations?

  • The Environment Agency use an online form to compile residents’ reports of smells from the site
  • Staffordshire County Council use an online form to compile residents’ daily reports of smells and symptoms related to the site
  • Concentrations of air pollutants are continuously monitored by the Environment Agency at four locations
  • The Environment Agency check raw air quality monitoring data against World Health Organization standards and publish weekly briefs on air quality and recent news
  • UKHSA produces a monthly risk assessment by comparing monitoring data to health standards once it has been quality assured
  • Staffordshire County Council and Keele University are developing a health screening study that will investigate effects on residents’ health reported to local GP practices

Public health frequently asked questions

Landfill gas, odour and hydrogen sulphide

What is landfill gas?

Landfill gas is formed in a landfill when biodegradable waste (such as food scraps, paper, and wood) rot and decompose (breakdown by bacteria) or evaporate. The gas is a mixture of mostly methane and carbon dioxide. It also contains a number of other gases in very small quantities. The gas, if not properly contained within the engineered landfill, can seep out into the air and lead to unpleasant odours. The different gases that can make-up landfill gas vary depending upon the type of waste in a landfill site and how far the waste has broken down.

What can I smell in the landfill gas from Walley’s Quarry landfill?

Landfill gas is mostly methane and carbon dioxide, which are odourless and colourless. However, the gas also contains hydrogen sulphide that, even in small quantities, has a strong odour of rotten eggs. This is what residents can smell.

What is hydrogen sulphide?

Hydrogen sulphide occurs both naturally and through human activity and is a trace gas commonly found in landfill gas which causes the rotten egg odour. Hydrogen sulphide can be smelled at much lower concentrations than the levels that cause harm.

Landfill gas indoors

How long does it take for any hydrogen sulphide outside to come inside?

If there is hydrogen sulphide in air outside your properly, it will enter the property over time. The concentration outdoors and the rate that hydrogen sulphide enters depends on many factors including:

  • whether it is windy or calm - monitoring data has shown that hydrogen sulphide concentrations are typically higher outdoors on calm, still nights and nights when winds are light and variable
  • outdoor temperature
  • whether doors and windows are open or closed
  • whether trickle vents are open or closed, or mechanical ventilation is on or off
  • the construction and age of the property (for example, whether it is a flat or a house, or a new-build or older property)

There is always a delay before peaks of hydrogen sulphide outside affect indoor concentrations. Maximum and average indoor levels are typically lower than outside because air exchange takes time and mixing and dilution lower the indoor concentration. This reduces the effect of fluctuations in outdoor concentrations.

How can I lower concentrations of hydrogen sulphide and reduce odours in my home?

Hydrogen sulphide can be smelled at very low concentrations. If the landfill is releasing landfill gas and a property is downwind (see below) there is no easy way to prevent or avoid odours indoors. Closing windows and doors and reducing ventilation when you smell hydrogen sulphide, or when your property is downwind of the landfill, can lower concentrations indoors. 

Once an outdoor odour has passed, opening windows and ventilating your home when your property is not downwind will help lower the hydrogen sulphide concentrations inside your home. 

How can I tell when the weather might affect odours in my home, and what can I do?

The Met Office website provides weather forecasts and predicted wind speeds and directions (the direction the wind will be from). Weather forecasts can be used to predict the weather from day to day.

Your property is downwind when the wind is forecast to be from the same direction as the landfill from your property (ie, if they are both to your southwest, as in example 1 below). Closing windows and reducing ventilation when your property is downwind and there is an odour outdoors can help reduce exposure indoors.

Your property is upwind when the wind is forecast to be from a different direction as the landfill from your property (ie, if the landfill is to your southwest but the wind direction is from the northeast, as in example 2 below). Opening windows when your property is upwind can increase ventilation and reduce any residual odour indoors.

When weather conditions are calm and still, such as during the night and early hours of the morning, odours are more likely to occur. Close windows in the evenings if there is an outdoor odour and open them in the morning once any outdoor odour has reduced.

Potential health effects

Are the odours causing, or going to cause, health effects?

Some people may experience physical symptoms, such as nausea, headaches or dizziness, as a reaction to strong odours, even when the substances that cause those odours are not at concentrations that are directly harmful to health. Some residents’ symptoms may be as a result of their reaction to particular odours.

The human nose is very sensitive to smell, and there are many things that have a very strong smell, even at concentrations below which there is a direct harmful effect to health. However strong odours are unpleasant and can impact on wellbeing, leading to stress and anxiety.

What are the health effects of hydrogen sulphide?

The first noticeable effect of hydrogen sulphide at very low concentrations is its unpleasant odour. Substances that are perceived as odorous are commonly present at levels below which there is a direct physical health effect from the substance itself. However, odours can cause nuisance and temporary symptoms such as headache, nausea, dizziness, watery eyes, stuffy nose, irritated throat, cough or wheeze, sleep problems and stress. Individuals may also become sensitised to these odours and as time goes on, their symptoms may be triggered at even lower levels.

At higher concentrations, exposure to hydrogen sulphide may cause eye, nose and throat irritation. People who have health conditions that affect breathing, such as asthma, may experience increased frequency and/or severity of symptoms. With continuing exposure these effects may be prolonged but are not anticipated to continue long-term once exposure has decreased to acceptable levels.

Following exposure to any substance, the adverse health effects depend on several factors, including the amount to which you are exposed (dose), the way in which you are exposed – such as breathing it in, eye or skin contact – the duration of exposure, the form of the chemical, and if you were exposed to any other chemicals.

Are there any health conditions which make people particularly susceptible to hydrogen sulphide?

People with health conditions that affect breathing, such as asthma, may be more sensitive to the effects of hydrogen sulphide. This is because hydrogen sulphide can cause irritation of the airways leading to coughing and shortness of breath.

Can hydrogen sulphide cause cancer?

There is no evidence to suggest that exposure to hydrogen sulphide can cause cancer in humans.

What is the risk of complications during pregnancy or effects on unborn children from the increased exposure to hydrogen sulphide around Walley’s Quarry?

There are limited data available on the effects of exposure to hydrogen sulphide during pregnancy. However, if exposure to hydrogen sulphide causes a mother to become unwell, this may affect the unborn child. 

Any pregnant women who have concerns about their pregnancy or health should seek further advice from their GP or midwife. 

What is the risk to children from the increased exposure to hydrogen sulphide around Walley’s Quarry? Could their development be affected?

While there is very limited data available to assess the impacts of exposure to hydrogen sulphide on infants and children, symptoms would be expected to be similar to those seen in adults. Infants and children with pre-existing respiratory conditions may be more sensitive to the effects of hydrogen sulphide.

There are no human studies available on developmental effects of exposure to hydrogen sulphide. While there is evidence of hydrogen sulphide causing effects such as eye, nose and throat irritation, tiredness, dizziness and irritability, it would be not be expected to affect childhood development.

What are the potential mental health effects associated with landfills?

The presence of persistent, unpleasant odours may have negative impacts on mental health, leading to stress and anxiety. Individual responses to odours are highly variable and are influenced by many factors including sensitivity, age, and prior exposure to odour. There is limited information available on the mental health effects of long-term exposure to hydrogen sulphide. 

What mental health support is available to residents?

Members of the public should consult their GP if they have concerns about their individual circumstances and health and require clinical advice. Anyone aged 16 and over experiencing emotional distress due to the emissions from Walleys Quarry, can get mental health support from Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (MPFT), in partnership with North Staffs Mind and Changes Health & Wellbeing.

As well as individual, confidential counselling, support groups for residents affected by the emissions are also being offered, alongside coping strategies and self-help materials to help improve wellbeing. Find out more from Staffordshire & Stoke-on-Trent Wellbeing Service by calling 0300 303 0923 or visiting their website, where an online self-referral can be made.

I think my health is being affected. What can I do?

UKHSA advises all residents to:

  • Close windows in the evenings if there is an outdoor odour, and open them in the morning once any outdoor odour has reduced
  • Use weather forecasts to identify times your property is downwind (when closing windows can reduce landfill odour indoors) and upwind (when opening windows can reduce any residual odour indoors)
  • Report nuisance odours whenever they occur to the Environment Agency using their online form
  • Report symptoms and smells on a daily basis to Staffordshire County Council using their online form
  • Contact NHS111 or your GP if you have concerns about your individual circumstances and require health advice. Access mental health support if needed (see above)

Where can I find more out about hydrogen sulphide?

UKHSA has published some general information on hydrogen sulphide for use in responding to chemical incidents (emergencies). These documents are available from the Government's website and provide information on the health effects of exposure and the chemical’s toxicity. Concentrations reported around Walley’s Quarry are much lower than those that might be expected during a chemical incident and the risk assessment section of these Frequently Asked Questions provides more information.

You can also look at the World Health Organization’s website for more information and resources.

Risk Assessments

Where can I find a detailed risk assessment of monitored concentrations of hydrogen sulphide?

The most recent UKHSA detailed monthly risk assessment is available from the Environment Agency’s Citizen Space website

Does the risk to health change as we move into 2022?

During 2021, the UKHSA has compared concentrations of hydrogen sulphide from Walleys Quarry Landfill to assess medium-term exposure to hydrogen sulphide against the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) Intermediate Minimal Risk Level (MRL) of 30 µg/m3, which applies cumulatively to up to 1 year.

Monitoring around Walley’s Quarry Landfill began in March 2021. However, it is not clear when the exposure to elevated levels of hydrogen sulphide began. The previous monitoring data for 2017/18 and 2019 indicates that the levels of hydrogen sulphide have not been consistently high over the past 4 years. For the 2017/18 monitoring period the average 24-hour concentration was 0.85 µg/m3 and for the 2019 the average 24-hour concentration was 0.95 µg/m3

An increase in Environment Agency complaints data during December 2020 suggests that an increase in exposure to hydrogen sulphide may have occurred at the end of 2020 to early 2021; no monitoring data is available for this period.  

At all the monitoring stations, the average hydrogen sulphide concentrations over the period March to November 2021 are below the ATSDR Intermediate MRL. This means that the concentrations experienced so far in 2021 are unlikely to cause a lasting impact to physical health, and as such, any risk to long-term (lifetime) physical health is likely to be small.

From January 2022 onwards, the UKHSA will be comparing the results with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Reference Concentration for Hydrogen Sulphide (US EPA RfC) only, as we do not consider it appropriate to further compare with the ATSDR Intermediate MRL. It should be noted that the US EPA RfC is the amount a human population (including sensitive subgroups) can be exposed to daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk. Exposure to concentrations of hydrogen sulphide above the US EPA RfC does not necessarily mean health effects will occur, but it reduces the margin of safety* that is considered desirable to protect health.

* Health-based guidance values are derived from animal or human data with a margin of safety applied to account for uncertainties in the data including potential differences in human response compared to that of an animal species and the variability in response in the human population due to factors such as genetic profile, age, and health status.

How will the long-term risk to health be assessed?

For data from January 2022 onwards, the UKHSA will be comparing the monthly average hydrogen sulphide concentrations and the cumulative average concentrations at each MMF with the US EPA RfC. Data will not be compared ATSDR Intermediate MRL (see above).

What if the concentrations do not fall below the US EPA RfC of 2µg/m3

To assess long-term exposure to hydrogen sulphide, data will be compared against the US EPA Reference Concentration (RfC). The US EPA RfC is the amount a human population (including sensitive subgroups) can be exposed to daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk. Exposure to concentrations of hydrogen sulphide above the US EPA RfC does not necessarily mean health effects will occur, but it reduces the margin of safety* that is considered desirable to protect health. UKHSA will continue to assess the risk to public health as future air quality data is provided by the Environment Agency.

* Health-based guidance values are derived from animal or human data with a margin of safety applied to account for uncertainties in the data including potential differences in human response compared to that of an animal species and the variability in response in the human population due to factors such as genetic profile, age, and health status.

The UKHSA risk assessment refers to 2µg/m3 and 1ppb for the US EPA reference concentration for hydrogen sulphide. Are these the same value? 

The US EPA reported the reference concentration for hydrogen sulphide as 0.002 mg/m3 (equivalent to 2 µg/m3). This is equivalent to 1.4 ppb which was rounded to a whole number (1 ppb) in Table 2 of the UKHSA health risk assessment.   

What are safe levels of exposure to hydrogen sulphide?

There are different health-based guideline values for short-term exposure (for example, up to 24 hours) and long-term exposure (for example, up to a year or over a lifetime). If short-term and long-term concentrations are below guideline values, they are considered to be unlikely to pose an appreciable risk to health. Exceedance of these concentrations does not mean adverse effects will occur, but it reduces the ‘margin of safety’ (see below)*. A more detailed explanation of the different guideline values is provided in UKHSA’s monthly risk assessment. 

* Health-based guidance values are derived from animal or human data with a margin of safety applied to account for uncertainties in the data including potential differences in human response compared to that of an animal species and the variability in response in the human population due to factors such as genetic profile, age, and health status.

Are these health-based guidance values protective of vulnerable groups?

The derivation of health-based guidance values takes into account the fact that some individuals may be more sensitive to the effects of a chemical than others. They are developed to be protective of the whole population including vulnerable groups (eg, those with existing health conditions, as well as young children, pregnant women and the elderly). 

The public health risk assessment states that the long-term risk to health is likely to be small, but my health is being affected right now. What can I do? 

At the hydrogen sulphide concentrations monitored so far, any risk to long-term physical health is likely to be small, but short-term transient health effects may be experienced such as irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. Additional effects resulting from odour may also be experienced which include headache, nausea, dizziness, watery eyes, stuffy nose, irritated throat, cough or wheeze, sleep problems and stress. Individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions may be more susceptible to these effects. With continuing exposure these effects may be prolonged, but they are not anticipated to continue long-term once exposure has decreased to acceptable levels.

If you are concerned about your individual circumstances and require health advice, please contact NHS 111 or your GP. They can carry out a clinical evaluation and give health advice based on your specific circumstances and medical history. Additional mental health support can be accessed through the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Wellbeing Service or by calling 0300 303 0923.

UKHSA advice on actions residents can take to reduce exposure and report nuisance odours and symptoms to the responding organisations are given in the section above. Regular reporting using these online forms is important as it helps the responding agencies to assess local impacts from the landfill over time. GPs’ feedback is also represented at the multi-agency coordinating groups by the local Clinical Commissioning Group.

How risks are managed

Where can I find a short summary of how public health risks are assessed and managed by the responding organisations?

You can find a summary of how the responding organisations assess and manage risks to public health in the headline section on public health messages and advice to members of the public.

Is the current situation unacceptable? What must be done?

Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council has served a statutory nuisance abatement notice on the site due to odour nuisance.

UKHSA has strongly recommended that the responding organisations take all measures to reduce off-site odours from the landfill site, as early as possible, and reduce the concentrations in the local area to levels below the health-based guidance values used to assess long-term exposure.

The landfill operator is taking actions to reduce emissions of hydrogen sulphide and odour nuisance. The Environment Agency Citizen Space website explains what has been done so far and what is being done at present. The effectiveness of the actions being taken must be regularly reviewed and further actions will be needed if the situation does not improve.

What do the responding organisations consider when managing the response?

The Strategic Coordinating Group managing the multi-agency response to the incident reviews the situation and progress of actions at the site, public health risk assessment of monitoring data, public complaints and health surveillance. This informs the Strategic Coordinating Group’s overall risk assessment and decisions about actions to reduce people’s exposure to hydrogen sulphide and the impacts of nuisance odour.

Where can I find out more about what is being done to reduce impacts from the landfill?

Responding organisations are providing updates to the Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council website

The key to reducing the impact on the community is effective gas management on site at Walley’s Quarry Landfill Site. The Environment Agency is continuing to regulate the site as a priority to make sure the company make improvements to reduce the odour as quickly as possible.

For the latest updates on the Environment Agency’s regulatory activities and timelines visit their Citizen Space website

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