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Landfill Leak Sends Dozens Of Cortland Students To Hospital

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67 Cortland Elementary School students and staff members were admitted to Kishwaukee Hospital's emergency room today after complaining of nausea: they were sickened by a strong smell from the nearby Waste Management landfill.

Most of those affected were students, and most have been treated with oxygen and released, according to Kishwaukee Hospital's chief medical officer Dr. Michael Kulisz.

Cortland Elementary is separated from the DeKalb County landfill by a berm and Interstate 88. DeKalb School District superintendent James Briscoe says people within the school started smelling a strong odor between 9:30 and 10:00. The landfill smell had entered the school's ventilation system: Waste Management says a construction contractor was working on a landfill upgrade project and unearthed old garbage. Strong winds carried the odor to the school.

Waste Management spokesperson Lisa Disbrow says no methane gas was released, and apologized for the odor. She said the company will no longer perform that type of work during school hours when “conditions are unfavorable.” She expects the project that involves installing new pipes to reduce the landfill’s smell to be complete in about two weeks.

Dr. Kulisz says blood tests showed slightly elevated levels of carbon monoxide in the blood of those who showed up in the emergency room. To put it in perspective, he said carbon monoxide levels in the blood should be at zero to two parts per million (ppm) under normal circumstances. A smoker’s blood can average 5 to 10 ppm. The carbon monoxide levels in those affected at Cortland Elementary were slightly higher than normal, but didn’t exceed 7 ppm. Kulisz would not speculate on why the carbon monoxide levels were up.

Disbrow says the elevated levels of carbon monoxide could not have been caused by the landfill emissions: she says it was just a bad smell caused by disturbing old garbage on a windy day. She says it’s similar to the stink you get when you let garbage pile up in your trashcan at home.

Superintendent Briscoe says the smell took an hour to dissipate: parents were allowed to pick up their children early. School is back in session Wednesday.

The expansion of the landfill has been an on-going controversy, with citizens' groups trying to stop it, citing fears of air and water contamination. The air nearCortland Elementary is constantly monitored for Hydrogen Sulfide.

Statement from Cortland Elementary Principal Kimberly Lyle

I wanted to touch base with all families and share what happened at school today and let you know that school is safe and in session on Wednesday, January 15th. The incident today at Cortland School was due to digging at the City Dump that produced a very strong smell that came inside the building. The smell caused some people to feel nausea and light headed. When the fire department arrived they checked the air quality they found all levels to be at zero. They repeated the test in the afternoon and the levels were still at zero. As a precautionary measure we did transport some students and staff to the hospital that were feeling sick. Again we want to reassure everyone is safe and we look forward to school tomorrow. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to call.

Statement from Waste Management

Waste Management is proud to be a good neighbor in DeKalb County. We sympathize with the families that were affected by the odors this morning. Unfortunately, a third party construction company was working onsite and digging into old garbage this morning when the winds changed direction towards the school. DeKalb landfill has been upgrading the gas system that controls odors. Methane gas was not released but due to the excavation-taking place in older garbage, a strong odor resulted. Waste Management is committed to not allowing this activity during unfavorable conditions. Any future work will be performed only when favorable conditions exist or the school is not in session as we complete this construction project. We hope to have this project completed in the next two weeks, again based upon favorable conditions. We are in contact with the county and the school officials.

Susan is an award-winning reporter/writer at her favorite radio station. She's also WNIJ's Perspectives editor, Under Rocks contributor, and local host of All Things Considered.
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