Forever Chemicals From a Forever Fire: Alabama Residents Aim to Test Blood or Urine for PFAS Amid Underground Moody Landfill Fire

MOODY, Ala.—When Danielle Cusimano brought her newborn baby, Saylor, home from the hospital in December 2022, it was hard to keep the smoke out.

The Cusimano family lived a few miles from the site of the Moody landfill just northeast of Birmingham where a month earlier, in November 2022, a fire had sparked to the surface, causing a blaze that covered dozens of acres and, in places, burned as deep as 150 feet, according to fire officials. 

That fire, which more than a year later has not been fully extinguished, billowed thick, dark smoke for months. Cusimano said there was no way to keep her child from being exposed. And soon, Saylor’s symptoms began. Her daughter experienced nosebleeds and constant ear infections, symptoms her doctor ascribed to the child’s exposure to smoke, according to her mother. Once, Saylor was so congested an ambulance had to come to her home to treat her. 

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Eventually, the Cusimano family moved, no longer willing to suffer at the hands of what they saw as rampant polluters and a government unwilling or unable to stop them. Now, more than a year later, the family is still searching for answers about what impacts the fire could have had on their health. 

The Cusimanos were one of dozens of families who attended a meeting at the Moody Civic Center earlier this month where residents and environmental organizers discussed the potential of blood or urine testing for PFAS, so-called “forever chemicals” that may have been released from the Moody dump as a result of the ongoing fire. 

Danielle and Tony Cusimano said paramedics rushed to their home after their daughter Saylor had difficulty breathing because of severe congestion her doctor said was caused by exposure to smoke from the Moody dump fire. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News

David Butler, staff attorney for Cahaba Riverkeeper, told residents present at the meeting that they deserve better information about what chemicals they may have been exposed to since the fire began. 

Water from discharge at the dump site tested for PFAS, per- and polyfluorinated substances, in the wake of the fire showed levels of the compounds well above advisory guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Cahaba Riverkeeper, the environmental nonprofit that conducted the testing. 

The state’s top environmental official, Lance LeFleur, director of the Department of Environmental Management Director, said at the time of the data’s publication that testing for PFAS at the Moody site “serves no purpose.”

“It’s disappointing that the Cahaba Riverkeeper has resorted to trying to scare people about PFAS for its political purposes, since they are keenly aware of the prevalence of PFAS in the state, like in the rest of the nation, and the efforts to rid it from our drinking water systems,” said LeFleur. 

According to ADEM, the agency conducted water sampling “both upstream and downstream of the fire” and concluded that there is “no discernable impact on water quality” caused by the blaze. 

This December 2022 photo shows smoke and open flames at the landfill site near Moody, Alabama. In the time since, the fire has continued to burn underground. Credit: Courtesy of Moody Fire Department
This December 2022 photo shows smoke and open flames at the landfill site near Moody, Alabama. In the time since, the fire has continued to burn underground. Credit: Courtesy of Moody Fire Department

In a statement, a spokesperson for the agency expressed doubt about the value of any information testing would reveal but acknowledged that ADEM is working with EPA officials “to address PFAS in Alabama.”

“While the testing of the residents near the Moody fire site might provide them with the levels of PFAS in their blood, it is hard to believe that anyone else could provide an analysis pinpointing the source(s) of PFAS found in their blood,” the statement said in part. 

PFAS compounds are ubiquitous, the spokesperson said, and any finding that residents’ blood contains the chemical would be unremarkable. 

Butler said ADEM’s claims don’t align with the facts. 

“The PFAS results [from the Moody site] are higher than just about anywhere in the country,” he said. “The results of what’s coming out of that landfill are higher than any of the samples collected anywhere else in the State of Alabama.”

Testing done by ADEM, Butler said, also did not assess water samples taken from sites closest to the dump. And while PFAS compounds are certainly common, he said, experts have concluded that elevated levels in the human body can be a warranted health concern. 

At this month’s meeting, many residents agreed with Butler, expressing a lack of confidence that ADEM—or any government officials—are looking out for residents in and around the Moody site. 

Cahaba Riverkeeper's David Butler addresses residents at this month's meeting in Moody. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News
Cahaba Riverkeeper’s David Butler addresses residents at this month’s meeting in Moody. Credit: Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News

Jeff Wickliffe, chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, told those gathered that he believes more data is needed to fully understand what impacts the site could have had on those living nearby. 

Because there are no natural sources of forever chemicals, Wickliffe said, it’s difficult to believe claims that only vegetative material was burned at the site given the levels present in the water. Other waste was likely present, he argued, in order to produce the levels of PFAS compounds present in discharge from the Moody site. 

Questions around the source of PFAS in residents’ blood, if present, can be addressed by taking background measurements of individuals who weren’t exposed to the impacts of the fire and resulting pollution, for example, Wickliffe said. 

Testing residents’ blood or urine for the presence of such compounds, then, may allow locals to document at least one avenue of potential impacts from the Moody site on their health, he said. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), increases in exposure to PFAS compounds can increase cholesterol, decrease birth weight, lower antibody responses to vaccines, and increase risks of pregnancy-induced hypertension, preeclampsia and kidney and testicular cancer. 

The risk of health impacts from PFAS is determined by exposure factors like dose, frequency, and duration, as well as individual factors like sensitivity or disease burden, according to the federal agency. 

With community support, Butler said, organizers will seek funding from the National Institutes of Health and other sources to pay for on-site blood or urine testing at a place convenient to residents. Once results are in, tested residents would be provided individual reports, and community-level, anonymized data would be released to the public. 

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Conducting the testing would arm community members with solid data they can then use to advocate for more aggressive actions from local, state and federal authorities, Butler said. It can also provide data that residents can bring to their doctors as a way to receive more informed care. Without testing, organizers said, residents are simply walking in the dark. 

Throughout the meeting, residents’ frustrations about the ongoing underground fire continued to spark to the surface.

“I was raised right there,” an older resident said, his voice booming from the back of the modest meeting room. “I hunted that holler. They ruined it. It ain’t fit for nothing anymore.”

Most residents focused on the issue at hand, with many expressing a willingness to participate in any testing conducted for PFAS in the wake of the fire. 

Cusimano said she’d be willing to submit to testing if it will help her family and community get answers.

“I have a child, and it’s all about her now,” Cusimano said. “Will she have issues later on? Will we?”

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