Hazardous wastes are among the by-products of industrial production in societies in which there is intensive use of chemicals (e.g., acids, bases, chlorinated hydrocarbons) and materials (heavy metals [e.g., mercury] or paint pigments) that are toxic and can cause poisoning and death. Official definitions of hazardous waste promulgated by state and federal environmental protection agencies usually require that the material have at least one of four characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity.
Hazardous wastes can become severe social problems for entire societies and smaller populations within them. Unregulated industrial dumping of such wastes can poison large land areas and residential neighborhoods, or foul drinking water or swimming beaches, with potential or real damage to human and other populations. Even when placed in special dump sites, some wastes can dissolve into groundwater and soils, a process known as leaching. Once transported by streams or tides, dissolved wastes can endanger populations far from the original dump site.
Industry is not the only major source of hazardous waste. Household waste often contains corrosive, toxic, ignitable, or reactive ingredients like paints, cleaners, oils, batteries, and pesticides, all of which contain potentially hazardous ingredients. These require special care in disposal, and consumers must be continually educated about safety in the use of these products, as well as the proper procedures to follow in disposing of them. Improper disposal of household hazardous wastes often results from pouring them in drains, on the ground, or into storm sewers or mingling them with other trash. Such improper disposal of these wastes can pollute the environment and pose a health threat, which is why communities in the United States and other industrial nations now offer a variety of options for their safe disposal.
Most hazardous wastes have histories of earlier public, and even scientific, ignorance about their potential dangers. For most of the industrial age, people paid little attention to the consequences of indiscriminate dumping of the by-products of mining and manufacturing. As late as the 1960s, containers of pesticides, household insulation materials containing asbestos, old car batteries, and used paint cans—all containing extremely hazardous materials—were handled and disposed of quite casually. Quantities of poisonous materials were transported in unsafe containers and disposed of in public dump sites or even in vacant lots. Industrial corporations frequently dumped hazardous wastes into rivers and streams, resulting in long-term damage to plants and animal species and eventually to humans. In the developing world these unsafe practices often continue and present a growing danger to the world’s oceans and animal species.
Public awareness about hazardous materials and wastes in the United States was almost nonexistent until publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962. Drawing extensively on new scientific studies of the dangers of pesticides and other toxic chemicals to human and other animal species, Carson exposed the dangers of the insecticide DDT to the earth’s food chains. The tragic case of widespread mercury poisoning in the Japanese fishing village of Minamata in the 1950s and 1960s brought world attention to problems of hazardous waste disposal and indiscriminate dumping of hazardous wastes by private companies. Not until the 1978 crisis of environmental poisoning and the high incidence of children with birth defects in the community of Love Canal in New York State, near Buffalo, did the federal government pass effective legislation to identify and begin cleaning up areas of land polluted and empoisoned by hazardous wastes. In response to the Love Canal disaster, Congress in 1980 passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, known most commonly as the Superfund Act.
The federal Superfund pays for toxic waste cleanups at sites where no other responsible parties can pay for a cleanup. Its funds come from a special tax on the petroleum, chemical, and other industries that routinely use or produce toxic materials and wastes. The Superfund Act also provides broad federal authority to clean up ongoing releases or potential releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. The majority (65-70 percent) of uncontrolled U.S. waste sites are waste storage and treatment facilities (including landfills) or former industrial properties. Typically these properties have been abandoned, and most have more than one major chemical contaminant. Another category of hazardous waste sites is found in federal government facilities in such as military bases, armament testing grounds, and nuclear energy complexes.
The substances most commonly released into the environment from uncontrolled hazardous waste sites are heavy metals and organic solvents: lead (59 percent of sites), trichloroethylene (53 percent), chromium (47 percent), benzene (46 percent), and arsenic (45 percent). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified more than 15,000 sites that qualify for Superfund remediation. About 1,400 of these sites are currently proposed for listing or are listed already on the National Priorities List. Assessment and remediation of these sites is proceeding under the direction of EPA, with support of the national Superfund Trust. As of this writing, Congress has failed to renew some of the fees collected from the oil and related industries, and the Bush administration is the first in the history of the program to oppose making polluting industries fund the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program.
The burdens of living with hazardous wastes are not shared equally in the United States or in most other industrial nations. Contaminated Superfund sites in the United States are most commonly found adjacent to poor communities, often populated by ethnic and racial minorities with relatively large numbers of children. Research commissioned by EPA estimates that approximately 11 million Americans live within 1 mile of a high-priority contaminated Superfund site, and between 3 and 4 million of these persons are children under 18 years of age. This puts them at risk of exposure to chemical toxicants released from these sites into the air, groundwater, surface water, and surrounding communities. Because they are growing rapidly and their bodies are building new tissue more rapidly than are adults, children are uniquely susceptible to health injury resulting from exposures to chemical toxicants in the environment.
EPA has identified more than 1,000 hazardous waste sites on military bases and proving grounds and in 1997 ordered Camp Edwards in Massachusetts to cease firing live ammunition because munitions chemicals were leaching into the drinking water for all of Cape Cod, where more than 500,000 people spend the summer. In response, the Pentagon has repeatedly, but so far unsuccessfully, requested legislation that would exempt more than 20 million acres of military land from key facets of the Clean Air Act and the two federal laws governing hazardous-waste disposal and cleanup. State environmental officials widely oppose this legislation, fearing that it will interfere with the ability of states to enforce environmental laws that protect drinking water and otherwise protect public health.
Nuclear waste is particularly hazardous and presents some of the most difficult problems of disposal. Exposure to radioactivity can cause cancer and birth defects and also has potential uses by terrorists. Nuclear waste results from the use of radioactive metals in nuclear power plants and military nuclear weapons facilities. Throughout the world are nuclear power plants nearing the end of their operating lives, particularly in the United States, where most of these plants are approaching the end of the operational time period allowed in their licenses. The close of the cold war in the 1990s left a legacy of radioactive waste from decommissioned nuclear missiles, but hospitals and nuclear research facilities also generate a great deal of nuclear waste.
Nuclear waste is classified as either “low-level” or “high-level” radioactive waste. Low-level nuclear waste includes material used to handle the highly radioactive parts of nuclear reactors (i.e., cooling water pipes and radiation suits) and waste from medical procedures involving radioactive treatments or X-rays. The level of radioactivity in low-level waste is relatively small, and the materials are relatively easy to dispose of. Storing the waste for a period of 10 to 50 years will allow most of the radioactive isotopes in low-level waste to decay, at which point the waste can be disposed of as normal refuse. High-level radioactive waste comes from the core of the nuclear reactor or nuclear weapon. This waste includes uranium, plutonium, and other highly radioactive elements made during fission. Most of the radioactive isotopes in high-level waste emit large amounts of radiation and have extremely long half-lives (some longer than 100,000 years), creating extensive periods before the waste will settle to safe levels of radioactivity. In consequence, waste disposal facilities for high-level nuclear wastes must be extremely secure and well protected. Few cities or regions welcome the location of hazardous waste treatment facilities, particularly nuclear waste facilities, in their vicinity. This makes the problem of transport and disposal of these materials a particularly difficult political problem.
- Carson, Rachel.  2002. Silent Spring. Anniversary ed. New York: Mariner Books.
- Landrigan, Philip J., William A. Suk, and Robert W. Amler. 1999. “Chemical Wastes, Children’s Health, and the Superfund Basic Research Program.” Environmental Health Perspectives 107(6):423-71.
- McGowan, Keith. 2001. Hazardous Waste. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books.
- S. Environmental Protection Agency, Hazardous Waste Web Site. (https://www.epa.gov/hw).
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