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A Study of Tritium in Municipal Solid Waste Leachate and Gas

Robert D. Mutch, Jr., John D. Mahony

Fusion Science and Technology

Volume 54 / Number 1 / July 2008 / Pages 305-310


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It has become increasingly clear in the last few years that the vast majority of municipal solid waste landfills produce leachate that contains elevated levels of tritium. The authors recently conducted a study of landfills in New York and New Jersey and found that the mean concentration of tritium in the leachate from ten municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills was 33,800 pCi/L with a peak value of 192,000 pCi/L. A 2003 study in California reported a mean tritium concentration of 99,000 pCi/L with a peak value of 304,000 pCi/L. Studies in Pennsylvania and the UK produced similar results. The USEPA MCL for tritium is 20,000 pCi/L. Tritium is also manifesting itself as landfill gas and landfill gas condensate. Landfill gas condensate samples from landfills in the UK and California were found to have tritium concentrations as high as 54,400 and 513,000 pCi/L, respectively. The tritium found in MSW leachate is believed to derive principally from gaseous tritium lighting devices used in some emergency exit signs, compasses, watches, and even novelty items, such as "glow stick" key chains.

This study reports the findings of recent surveys of leachate from a number of municipal solid waste landfills, both open and closed, from throughout the United States and Europe. The study evaluates the human health and ecological risks posed by elevated tritium levels in municipal solid waste leachate and landfill gas and the implications to their safe management. We also assess the potential risks posed to solid waste management facility workers exposed to tritium-containing waste materials in transfer stations and other solid waste management facilities.

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