Make your own free website on
Hazardous Waste


According to the EPA hazardous waste is any discarded material that 1) contains one or more of 39 toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic compounds at levels that exceed established limits;  2) is flammable;  3) is reactive or unstable enough to explode or release toxic fumes;  4) is capable of corroding metal containers such as tanks, drums, and barrels.

However, this narrow official definition of hazardous wastes (mandated by Congress) does not include:

· Radioactive wastes
· Hazardous and toxic materials discarded by households
· Mining wastes
· Oil-and gas-drilling wastes, routinely discharged into surface waters or dumped into 	unlined pits and landfills.
· Liquid waste containing hydrocarbons (80% of all liquid hazardous waste).  The EPA 	allows it to be burned as fuel in cement kilns and industrial furnaces with little 	regulation.
· Cement kiln dust produced when liquid hazardous wastes are burned in the kilns--a practice classified as recycling by the EPA but called dangerous “sham recycling” by environmentalists.
· Municipal incinerator ash, which if classified as hazardous waste would be so expensive to ship to and bury in special landfills that the whole waste incineration industry would collapse.
· Wastes from the thousands of small businesses and factories that generate less than 220 pounds of hazardous waste per month.
· Waste generated by the military which produce more hazardous waste each year (about a ton per minute) than the top 5 U.S. chemical companies combined.


The EPA estimates that at least 6 billion tons of hazardous waste are produced each year in the United States.  However, only 6% is legally defined as hazardous waste and subject to government regulation.  Thus 94% of the country’s hazardous waste is not regulated by hazardous-waste laws.  The U.S. leads the world in total and per capita hazardous-waste production.  A serious problem facing the United States and most industrialized countries is what to do about hazardous chemicals leaking from thousands of abandoned waste dumps.


Atmospheric emissions of lead from human sources are 28 times greater than those from natural sources. We take in small amounts of lead from the air, food and the water we drink.  Lead builds up in our bodies and is stored in our bones, where its half-life is 20 years.  Even at very low levels it damages the central nervous system, especially in young children.  Pregnant women can also transfer dangerous levels of lead to their unborn children.

Most children treated for acute lead poisoning are mostly poor and nonwhite.  Survivors suffer from palsy, partial paralysis, blindness, stunted growth, interfere with the body’s use of vitamin D and hemoglobin production (needed for red blood cells to carry oxygen), hyperactivity, irritability, and behavior problems and mental retardation.  Children under age 6 are especially vulnerable. According to the EPA 88% of all children in the United States under age 6 have unsafe blood levels of lead that may retard their mental, physical, and emotional development.  This epidemic affects children of every socioeconomic background, but those in poor families and minority groups suffer most.

The following are the greatest sources of lead in the United States:

· Lead particles injected into the atmosphere that settle onto the soil and become 	outdoor or indoor dust.  Children ingest this lead as they play in contaminated soil 	or dust.  The major sources of atmospheric lead particles today are incinerators, 	lead smelters, furnaces burning used motor oil, and battery manufacturing plants. 
	Leaded gasoline has been phased out, but the massive amounts of indestructible
	lead particles that fell out of the atmosphere for 50 years before the ban still
	contaminate land.  In countries that have not banned leaded gasoline, it is the
	largest atmospheric source of lead.
· Interior paint in 52% of the houses built before 1978, when use of lead compounds in
	paint was banned.  These are a major source of poisoning for children ages 1-3,
	who inhale lead dust from cracking and peeling paint or ingest it.
· Groundwater contaminated by lead leached from landfills
· Drinking water contaminated by plumbing containing lead solder
· Lead solder used to seal the seams on food cans
· Imported cups, plates, pitchers, leaded glass crystal, and other items used to cook, 	store, or serve food
· Vegetables and fruits grown on soil contaminated by lead
· Burning comic strips, Christmas wrapping paper, or painted wood, in wood stoves 	and fireplaces.


Dioxins are compounds formed as by-products in chemical reactions involving chlorine and hydrocarbons.  One of these compounds, TCDD, sometimes simply called dioxin, is the most harmful and most widely studied.

TCDD and other dioxins result from the burning of chlorine-containing wastes in municipal and hazardous waste incinerators and cement kilns, chlorine-bleaching of pulp and paper, and the manufacture of certain herbicides (for example, 2,4,5-T), many plastics (PVC), and many chlorinated hydrocarbon chemicals.  Dioxins persist in the environment, especially in soil and human fatty tissue, and can apparently be biologically amplified to higher levels in food webs.  

TCDD causes cancer in humans but, unlike most carcinogens, does not damage DNA.  Studies on mice revealed that minuscule doses of TCDD disrupted and suppressed the immune system-making the test animals (and presumably humans) more vulnerable to a variety of diseases.  For example, a viral infection that rarely kills a normal mouse was fatal to mice injected with trace amounts of TCDD.  

Tainted foods such as fish, mother’s milk, milk from cows eating grass growing in contaminated soil, and crops grown in contaminated soil are the major sources of exposure to dioxins for the general population.


There are five basic options for dealing with hazardous wastes:  (1) Don’t make them in the first place or use less harmful substitutes, (2) recycle or reuse them , (3) detoxify them, (4) burn them, and (5) put them into a deep well, pit, landfill, or dump them in the ocean.

Effective pollution prevention requires assuming that any waste or pollutant is potentially harmful unless proven otherwise. This precautionary principle is the inverse of the waste management approach, in which waste are assumed to be benign until proven harmful.  After preventing pollution the next most desirable option are recycling and reuse, currently applied waste. Yet the EPA devotes less than 1% of its waste management budget to encouraging prevention, reuse, and recycling of such waste.


The next priority is to convert any remaining waste into less hazardous or nonhazardous materials. Conversion methods include spreading biodegradable waste on the land, using heat, chemical, or physical methods, using natural or bioengineered bacteria to break them down, and burning them on land or at sea in incinerators.

Biological treatment of hazardous waste, or bioremediation, may be the wave of the future. In this process bacteria secrete enzymes that break down large complex molecules into smaller molecules they can absorb. The end result is cell mass and carbon dioxide. If toxin-munching bacteria can be found or engineered for specific hazardous chemicals, these substances can be fed to them at less than half the cost of disposal in landfills, and only one-third the cost of on-site incineration.


Most U.S. hazardous waste is disposed of by deep-well injections, surface impoundments and secure landfills. Ponds, pits, or lagoons used to store hazardous waste are supposed to be sealed with a plastic liner on the bottom. Solid waste settles to the bottom, while water and other volatile compounds evaporate into the atmosphere. According to the EPA, however, 70% of these storage basins have no liners, and as many as 90% may threaten groundwater. Eventually all liners leak, and waste will percolate into ground water. Also, major storms or hurricanes can cause overflows. Moreover, volatile compounds, such as hazardous organic solvents, can evaporate, into the atmosphere and eventually contaminate surface water and groundwater in other locations.

About 5% of the legally regulated hazardous waste produced in the United States is concentrated, put into drums, and buried either in one of 21 specially designed and monitored commercial hazardous-waste landfills or in one of 35 landfills run by companies to handle their own waste.

When current and future commercial hazardous-waste landfills do leak and threaten the water supplies, many of their operators will declare bankruptcy. Then the EPA will put the landfills on the Superfund list, and taxpayers will pick up the tab for cleaning them up.


Traditionally incinerators, landfills or treatment plants for hazardous wastes have been located in communities populated by the poor and minorities. A 1992 study revealed that government cleanup of hazardous-waste sites in white areas was 20% faster than in communities where people of color live. Such actions have been condemned as a mixture of environmental racism and economic discrimination.



In 1976 the United States congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA, pronounced rick-ra), amending it in 1984. This law requires the EPA to identify hazardous waste and set standards for their management, and provides guidelines and financial aid for states to establish waste management programs. The law also requires all firms that store, treat, or dispose of more than 220 pounds of hazardous waste per month to have a permit stating how such waste are to be managed.
Recycled chemical wastes are exempted from control under RCRA.  Using this loophole the EPA (under pressure from producers and handlers of hazardous waste) allows liquid hazardous wastes to be mixed and burned in furnaces, and cement kilns, and call it “recycling.”

In 1984 Congress amended RCRA to minimize or eliminate land disposal of 450 regulated hazardous wastes by May 1990 unless the EPA determined that land disposal was an acceptable or the only feasible approach.  Even then each chemical was to be detoxified to the fullest extent possible before land disposal.  However, instead of requiring treatment, EPA regulations issued in 1990 allowed industries to dilute hazardous wastes by mixing them with other wastes and then injecting the mixture into deep wells--a practice environmentalists say violates the 1984 RCRA amendments.

In 1992 the EPA proposed to exempt any waste containing toxins below certain concentrations from regulation, without requiring the industry in question to produce laboratory analyses or data to support its claim.  This rule, based on EPA risk-benefit analyses, would exempt up to 66% of presently defined hazardous waste from federal regulation.


The 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act is commonly known as the Superfund program.  This law (plus amendments in 1986 and 1990) established a $16.3-billion fund, financed jointly by federal and state governments and by taxes on chemical and petro-chemical industries, to clean up inactive hazardous-waste dump sites and leaking underground tanks that threaten human health and the environment.  The EPA is authorized to collect fines and sue the owners of abandoned sites and tanks (if they can be found and held responsible) to recover up to three times the cleanup costs.

The EPA has identified 34,000 potentially hazardous-wastes sites but has stopped looking for new ones, even though the General Accounting Office estimates that there are between 103,000 and 425,000 such sites.  And if the 17,482 known toxic sites at military bases are included, there are potentially 440,000 hazardous-waste sites in the United States.
So far the EPA has placed only 1,200 sites on a National Priority List for cleanup because they threaten nearby populations.

The EPA estimates the cost of cleaning up the current 1,211 National Priority sites at $40 billion.  Cleaning up toxic military dumps will cost another $100-$200 billion and take at least 30 years; cleaning up contaminated Department of Energy sites used to make nuclear weapons will cost an additional $100-$360 billion and take 30-50 years.


Minorities, the working-class, and poor people in the United States suffer most from industrial toxins, dirty air and drinking water, unsafe work conditions, and the location of noxious facilities such as municipal landfills, incinerators, and toxic-waste dumps.  Despite the government’s attempts to level the playing field, all communities are not created equal.

All communities are not treated as equals when it comes to resolving environmental and public health concerns either.  Over 300,000 farm workers (over 90% of whom are Hispanic) and their children are poisoned by pesticides sprayed on crops in the United States.  Some 3-4 million children (many of them African Americans or Latinos living in the inner city) are poisoned by lead-based paint in old buildings, lead-soldered pipes and water mains, lead-tainted soil contaminated by industry, and air pollutants from smelters.  Lead poisoning is considered the number one environmental health problem facing children in the United States.  Yet little has been done over the past 20 years to rid the nation of this preventable childhood hazard.  
All communities do not bear the same burden or reap the same benefits from industrial expansion.  This is true in the case of the mostly African American Emelle, Alabama (home of the nation’s largest landfill); Navajo lands in Arizona where uranium is mined; and the 2,000 factories known as maquiladoras, located just across the U.S. border in Mexico. Environmental justice does not stop at the U.S. borders.
Communities, state, and regions that contain hazardous-waste disposal facilities (importers) receive far fewer economic benefits (jobs) than geographic locations that generate the waste (exporters). Nationally 60% of African Americans and 50% of Latinos live in communities with at least one uncontrolled toxic-waste site.


Back to the Lessons and Notes