Editor’s note: After noticing a trend of several Bristol residents who live near the landfill on Shakesville Rd. reporting their pets falling ill, some even dying, we sought to give a voice to the pet owners who have found no true answers in their grief and frustration. While there is no concrete proof in this article that the stories below of pets dying or becoming ill can be directly linked to the landfill, pet owners are convinced the landfill’s gases and odors emitted are directly involved. They have found solace in sharing their story, knowing they are not alone.
BRISTOL, Va./Tn. (WJHL) Home to a problematic landfill, Bristol, Va. is months into a battle against invasive odors and noxious gases emitted from the site that continue to impact the quality of life of those living in the surrounding area.
It is a complicated issue – local leaders are asking for federal assistance, sister-city Bristol, Tn. is threatening legal action, and area lawmakers are even calling for closure of the landfill.
Just this week, the city of Bristol, Va. announced an expert, 11-member panel that will review the problems at the landfill and look for a solution.
As the powers that be work to uncover what exactly is causing the stench, and fix it, homeowners that live near the landfill have told News Channel 11 for months the odors and gases impact them daily; resulting in nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness, plummeting property values, and a general fear of the unknown.
Some neighbors say, it doesn’t stop there – they believe it is hurting their pets.
In this report, you will find four accounts of Bristol pet owners interviewed by News Channel 11 who are convinced the landfill’s emissions either killed their pets or made them sick.
Through contacting pet owners and digging through social media, we identified at least another 34 pet owners who report having similar issues with their dogs, cats and other pets.
Marsha Schorr is no stranger to problems with the landfill, experiencing headaches, allergy symptoms, tremors and dizziness herself.
“When this attacks your house, I’m telling you, it is overwhelming. You can’t really breathe,” said Schorr. “It hurts everybody, but our pets are smaller, they have smaller systems. It’s gonna affect them first, and it did Charla,” said Schorr.
She reports her dog Charla, 12, had a perfect checkup at the veterinarian’s office just five months before she died in May.
“She went outside, went to the bathroom and then just fell over. I took her straight away to the vet, they said she was dying. Her lungs were full of blood. She didn’t have congestive heart failure. So, they had no explanation as to why,” said Schorr.
Schorr had noticed Charla was having out-of-character coughing fits, especially outside, when the landfill’s odors were strong, typically at night and in the early morning hours. She reports Charla would obsessively rub her nose and face on the carpet and rugs when she came back inside.
“I didn’t know what was going on. I took her to the vet, everything was fine. They didn’t know why she was coughing.”
Schorr reports Charla was full of energy, acting more like a puppy. However, once the coughing fits began, Charla was never the same.
“The vet said when she coughed really hard she had torn something in her throat or maybe her esophagus and then apparently bled out through the night into her lungs.”
Through tears, Schorr described losing Charla as one of the hardest moments of her life.
“I live alone, this was my girl,” said Schorr. “She was more than my pet. She was family. I know I would still have her if not for the landfill.”
Schorr says veterinarians for Charla could not explain her death.
Her indoor cat, Neville, has sneezing spells at times but otherwise, no issues as serious as Charla’s.
“Nobody seems to want to put any blame anywhere. I know what happened to my dog. And I know if I have to move into my car, I’m not going to let that happen to my cat, too. I keep a close eye on it,” said Schorr.
The first sign for Misty Jackson that something was wrong with her dog Alizeah came when she noticed her obsessively drinking water about a month before her passing in October.
“She starting drinking a ton of water like she was dehydrated, just lapping it up always,” said Jackson.
At 14, ‘Ali’ was an older dog, but Jackson reports she was in great health, current on all vaccines with no known conditions.
Ali’s issues started and ended with going outside to go to the bathroom, says Jackson.
“I know the morning that was the beginning of the end. I was on the phone and I remember saying, ‘The smell is so bad this morning, it’s so thick you could cut through it,’” said Jackson. “Alizeah, when she came back in her eyes were bulging, she was gasping for air. And she comes up to me like, ‘help me.’”
Jackson says Alizeah started having more episodes, struggling to breathe after coming inside and panting hard.
“I just felt something was wrong. The other animals were acting funny,” said Jackson. “She wasn’t suffering, but I’m her mom. I knew something was wrong, I knew this was different.”
Alizeah was lethargic, short of breath, and generally ‘felt bad’ for the next week.
Jackson says the afternoon of her death, she noticed her eyes starting to fix.
“I laid down beside of her, I put my hand around her, put my hand on her heart. I just talked in her ear until her last heartbeat,” said Jackson through tears. “I know that’s a dog, but I’m her mom. As a mom you always want to be able to fix it and I couldn’t fix it.”
Jackson took Ali to the vet that afternoon and had her cremated.
Vets could only say her death was likely due to her age.
“I know my dog. That dog probably had 2, 3, 4 maybe 5 years in her. I know that. There was something else going on.”
Once Jackson reports she started hearing other stories of people’s pets getting sick, she started thinking that it could be linked to the landfill. Now, she is convinced.
“It’s no coincidence,” said Jackson. “I knew her better than anybody else and I can tell you that this absolutely, 100 percent began and ended with her going outside that day.”
Similar to Alizeah, Selina Reynolds noticed her dog Lilly had begun gulping water. Lilly was not sleeping well, was lethargic, restless and panting often.
Reynolds says she took Lilly, 15, to the vet to run labs which found she was perfectly healthy, just in need of routine dental work.
Just before Thanksgiving, Reynolds says she knew something was different. Lilly was panting in a way that she says was not normal. Then, she would notice Lilly was hiding under their bed.
“I go in our bedroom and she has lost her ability to walk. I immediately hit the panic button,” said Reynolds.
She says they waited for three hours that night at the emergency vet to have Lilly checked out, but she began acting more normally while they were waiting; so, they went home.
“I would never brought her back home if I had known my home was killing her. I didn’t know,” said Reynolds.
As soon as they got Lilly home, Reynolds reports she was in respiratory distress and could not breathe. The next day they took Lilly to a vet in Abingdon, where, when they got there, she was not exhibiting the same symptoms. The vet said Lilly was fine.
“It was the roughest night ever. We were up all night. She could not catch her breath, she was panicking,” said Reynolds.
Only about a week after Lilly’s initial episode, she kept collapsing and getting disoriented. Reynolds says it was then she and her husband made the extremely tough decision to have Lilly put to sleep, not wanting her to suffer anymore.
Reynolds now believes Lilly was reacting to gases emitted from the landfill and her dog was “searching for clean air in their home.”
Reynolds says she was closer to Lilly than most people are to their dogs.
“I don’t have kids, she was my child. I feel like she was stolen from me, that’s what it feels like,” said Reynolds through tears.
The Reynolds family had Lilly cremated. Veterinarians could not explain what happened to her.
“It’s easy to blame this on age, but old age doesn’t kill you, something inside of you failing kills you. There were no indicators for Lilly. She was perfectly healthy up until that Sunday.”
Reynolds says she sent her cat away to live with her sister after noticing it acting strange and panicky. Now, the cat is acting normally according to Reynolds. It is something she wishes she could have done for Lilly.
“It’s been devastating to us. She didn’t have to die that way. We didn’t have to be put through this. The landfill is a trigger to me, the smell is a trauma response to me,” said Reynolds. “Nothing about how she died is explainable any other way.”
The Sexton family says moving away from Bristol entirely is what it took for their young dog to get back to normal.
Josh Sexton, a disabled combat veteran who served in Iraq, says his service dog Snuffles started acting lazy, not wanting to go outside.
“Psychologically, something was messed up with her. She’s a very smart dog, she’s my service dog, she wasn’t really responding the same way,” he said. “Then, on Nov. 16 she just started vomiting. She’s a young dog so, we were just really concerned.”
After continuing to throw up, the Sextons took Snuffles to the vet.
“They ran tests on her and come to find out she had environmental bronchitis. So, something in the environment had made her sick,” said Sexton.
While this diagnosis cannot be directly linked to the landfill, their vet did not rule it out entirely. Sexton reports his dog was never around other dogs and he does not know of anything that changed in her environment at home that could trigger environmental bronchitis. This led them to believe there was a link to the landfill, which sat just five miles from their home.
“As soon as our dog got sick and we got the confirmation I flew my wife, she’s pregnant, and my daughter, I flew them out. Immediately.”
The Sextons only lived in Bristol from July through November. The couple says their daughter also developed laryngitis and doctors said she could develop asthma in the future.
“My training in the Marine Corps told me when something was like that, you need to get the heck out of there,” said Sexton.
After moving to California and completing her prescribed medicine for bronchitis, the Sextons report Snuffles is healthy.
“She started immediately getting better,” Sexton said of their prompt move.
They report their cat, Haku, who started acting strange in Bristol is also now also acting normally again.
While they were sad to leave the region, the Sextons say they do not regret packing up everything and moving away.
“As a veteran, as a father and a husband, I cannot in good conscience leave my family there knowing that we are getting sick and saying, it’s going to be okay, it will get better. No, it’s not.”
Dr. Laura Green, based in Massachusetts, is president and senior toxicologist at Green Toxicology, LLC.
The city of Bristol, Tenn. hired Green to author an independent public health assessment for airborne emissions from the Bristol, Va. landfill.
On Jan. 12, Green presented her findings in a town hall with residents, which can be watched in its entirety here.
Green concluded that certain potentially hazardous chemicals identified in the air around the landfill were present, but not in concentrations high enough to pose significant risk for long-term impact on people’s health.
For example, she concluded benzene levels were about 15x higher than average for a small town like Bristol and acrolein and carbon monoxide are also present, though not in ‘unsafe’ amounts that would harm public health, according to Green.
“The landfill’s offensive odors can harm people’s, and other animals’, sense of well-being, can harm their quality of life, and can induce symptoms such as headache and nausea. Odors aside, it does not appear that potentially hazardous air pollutants are present at sufficient concentrations… to constitute health-hazards,” Green wrote in her report, which can be read here.
However, in the January town hall, Green herself warned neighbors of the potential impacts that harsh odors could have on their animals.
“It’s not a direct toxicity, but it is certainly a very real thing. I would imagine non-human mammals could be much more highly affected than we humans,” Green told Bristol residents.
She pointed out that animals have much more acute senses of smell than humans.
“I can imagine a situation in which some non-human mammals will be very bothered by this and will become emaciated, stop eating, stop drinking, and may pass away because of it,” she said in the January meeting.
News Channel 11 struggled to find a local veterinarian to speak on this issue in researching this story. Several vets at the University of Virginia College of Veterinary Medicine we contacted declined to comment.
The University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine offered an interview with Dr. Philip Krawec, of Small Animal Clinical Services.
Dr. Krawec said there is no doubt that animals will react adversely to harsh odors, just like humans. He said this will look like sneezing, discharge from the eyes, agitation and lethargy.
“The big things that we really get concerned about are when an animal is truly in respiratory distress, and if it is truly affecting their lower airways and their lungs, and their ability to get oxygen to all the tissues of their body,” said Krawec.
However, Krawec says he would have a hard time linking deaths in pets to an odor.
“Unless you have an odor that is specifically linked to a certain chemical that we know is dangerous to them, it’s going to be almost impossible to say that just a noxious odor of some kind is going to lead directly to a death and it’s unfortunate that we don’t have the tools to be able to say there is an absolute causative effect, but that would go very low on my list,” he said.
Krawec says, theoretically, gases in a pet’s environment could cause illness, but only at very high levels. As Dr. Green reported, she does not believe the emissions in Bristol are toxic.
“The levels at which you are going to see clinical toxicity and clinical signs need to be extremely, extremely high,” said Krawec. “So if there is a prolonged high-level exposure, then yes, potentially, there could be illness, but I would defer to others who would be able to tell us more about what truly is considered to be a high-level and long-term exposure.”
Krawec said even if it were the case gases contributed to the illness or death of an animal, it would not be glaringly obvious to a veterinarian examining the pet.
In all cases, he says the burden of proof is high.
“Realistically, is it something I’m going to keep in the back of my mind and consider, absolutely. But realistically, it’s going to be nearly impossible to prove in any of these situations,” said Krawec.
He added underlying diseases, like asthma, in dogs and cats can be worsened by some of these irritants in the air.
In speaking with pets owners, they want answers.
“There’s too many other people that have been through the same heartbreak I have for it to be just a coincidence,” said Jackson. “Nothing is going to be validated until something is done. Otherwise, every pet that’s died, every sleepless night, everything is in vain. Ali’s death is gonna mean nothing until somebody does something about it.”
Jackson, Schorr and Reynolds all reported they have considered moving away from Bristol, an extremely tough decision for each family.
“It’ll be the last house I ever own. But I am willing to walk away from it. Just to keep my health,” said Schorr.
Many have found solace in a Facebook group created by and for people who are impacted by the landfill. The page, with nearly 7 thousand members, has connected some of these pet owners to each other as they share their stories online.
“It helps to know you are not crazy. Because you’ve experienced this and lost a pet for no reason, other people have too,” said Schorr.
News Channel 11 has identified at least another 34 pet owners who report illness, even death, in their pets within the past year.
All of our continuing coverage of the Bristol, Va. landfill can be found on WJHL.com.