Howard County officials -- stung by recent suggestions that the Alpha Ridge Landfill is a threat to its neighbors -- went on the public-relations offensive last night with new tests and a new expert to testify to the landfill's safety.
Laura Green, a toxicologist from Cambridge, Mass., flown down by the county, told about 40 Marriottsville residents that she thought gases at the landfill exist in concentrations too low to affect their health.
"When you think about cancer in your neighborhood and you think about the landfill, stop and think about all these other causes," Green said, listing estrogen, sunlight, alcohol, asbestos, cigarettes and radiation.
Green based her conclusions on tests of gases deep inside the landfill, where the waste and its gases are concentrated.
Using computer models of the area, Green studied the chemicals being emitted from the landfill.
She said that though some can cause cancer in doses tens of thousands of times higher, they were unlikely to be dangerous at levels present in the community around Alpha Ridge.
The chemicals coming from the landfill, she said, already exist in far higher concentrations in ordinary air.
In the worst scenario she studied, involving the carcinogen vinyl chloride, the amount coming from Alpha Ridge added only 10 percent to what already is in the air of an ordinary community, she said.
Green got into a testy debate with Marriottsville resident Donald Gill, a University of Maryland biochemist whose technical expertise and insistent manner has helped neighbors bring their concerns to county officials.
"I'm really surprised that there is that much vinyl chloride coming out of the landfill," Gill said. "You seem to be dismissing it."
Green replied, "It is 10 percent larger than a number that, in nobody's opinion, is carcinogenic."
County officials hired Green to study the health risks of Alpha Ridge after The Sun reported that in one community 1,000 yards LTC from the landfill, 10 people had battled cancer -- and seven had died -- since Alpha Ridge opened in 1980.
A perfectly average Maryland community of that size, about 70 residents, would have one new cancer case each three years, according to state statistics.
In the Marriottsville community, eight cases have come in the last eight years.
Green disputed that the rate of cancer cases in the community was unusually high, saying that half of all men and one-third of all woman get cancer at some point in their lives. One in five die from it, she said.
"That's a sobering fact," Green said. "People get cancer. They've always gotten cancer."
Aside from hiring Green, county officials have also begun a study of the cancer cases near the landfill, particularly in the one community on Old Frederick Road with the 10 cancer cases.
L. Scott Muller, another Marriottsville resident active in landfill issues, urged the county do more-thorough research, including door-to-door surveys.
"You're going to miss most of the cancer that's in the area," Muller said.
After Muller debated the issue with Green for several minutes, County Executive Charles I. Ecker stepped forward and said, "I know one thing. Whatever we do won't be right in your mind. We'll do the best we can."