The air quality at the Phoenix RV park where 62-year-old Maggie Torres lives is so bad that she bought her dog goggles to protect his eyes when he hangs his head out the car window.
“I am afraid he is going to get particulates in his eyes,” she said.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds.
Ever since Green Earth Recycling began operating an open-air mulching facility on the corner of 23rd Avenue and Williams Drive 18 months ago, the residents of two nearby RV parks have complained of watering eyes, scratchy throats, and wheezing. Pet owners report that their furry friends are suffering, too.
As the composting machines churn through 10-foot piles of organic waste, mostly made up of sagebrush and felled trees, the air becomes so thick with particulates that it appears smoggy, says Saundra Bryn, manager of Desert Edge RV Park.
“The air smells almost spicy. When I breathe it in, it scratches my throat on the way down,” she says, making her fingers into claws and drawing them down her neck to illustrate the feeling.
She conducted a survey of 116 residents and visitors and found only five who said they weren’t experiencing respiratory issues. Twenty-six say they’ve developed a cough or started sneezing frequently since Green Earth Recycling set up the mulch facility. Twenty-three say they have difficulty breathing, 18 say the smell makes their eyes water, and eight report head or stomach aches.
The owners of several nearby businesses say their employees are missing work more frequently, citing headaches, watery eyes, and sinus infections.
“I’ve had to purchase dust masks for the employees,” Hintze Companies' Michael Hintze wrote in a letter to city officials.
In healthy people, a number of scientific studies have linked exposure to organic particulates to similar symptoms in addition to an increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. Particulates have been shown to exacerbate existing heart or lung disease, and, in some cases, contribute to premature death.
Torres, who has lived in Desert Edge RV Park for three years and never has experienced allergies, said she developed a chronic sniffle and started having coughing fits after Green Earth moved in. She believes the pollution may have contributed to a bout of pneumonia so bad that she had to go the emergency room last fall. It took her six weeks to recover.
A Canadian snowbird who spends six weeks at the park each year described the smell as so nauseating that, on two nights, she moved to a hotel to get away from it. Another visitor notes that she felt like “a prisoner confined to my own house” because of the odor. Others said the smog was so bad that it left a layer of fine particles on the inside surfaces of their RV.
“It feels like really bad asthma,” Torres said. “You cannot breathe. It just kind of cuts your tubes off, and you’re struggling for air.”
Amid complaints, the city of Phoenix denied Green Earth’s request for a three-year permit to operate on the location. Green Earth, which did not respond to a request for comment, has appealed the decision.
About 40 people from the RV parks trekked down to Phoenix City Hall recently for a board of adjustments meeting, hoping the issue would be resolved. But, because of a clerical error, board members voted to postpone the hearing until October.
Dianna Ellis, resident manager at Phoenix Metro RV Park, was deflated.
“A month is a long time when you’re not feeling well,” she says. She says she is particularly worried about her husband, who has a “compromised lung.”
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Ellis and Bryn also express concern that the delay would drive snowbirds, who usually start checking into the RV park in September, away. After the smell showed up last year, a number of regulars have called to inquire whether it’s gone before making reservations.
“It’s really affected our quality of life,” Torres says.
When the smell is particularly bad, she drives her dog, a 110-pound Labrador retriever, 15 miles away to a different RV park for his daily walk. She and her husband don’t hang out on the patio like they used to. The neighbors have stopped congregating by the pool. An evening drive with the windows rolled down recently ended with Torres’ husband doubled over, gagging.
“I hope they get rid of the recycling plant,” she says. “And I hope it’s soon.”