What do you do with the hazardous wastes contained in common household products?
If you are like many homeowners, your philosophy may well be, out of sight, out of mind. But what happens when you're spring cleaning and want to get rid of that old motor oil, antifreeze or leftover insect repellent? It's one thing to bag your trash and leave it for the truck to haul away; it's quite another to pour motor oil down the storm drain in front of your house.
Remarkably, according to Eleanor Falk from the Governor's Chesapeake Bay Communications Office, "one quart of motor oil can cause an eight-acre oil slick."
After a random survey in my neighborhood, the conclusion is that most people do not understand how, for example, storm drains differ from sanitary drains in the home. Moreover, many people are unaware of the proper ways to dispose of the numerous products that are classified as hazardous household wastes.
A hazardous product is one whose use or disposal poses a threat to health or the environment. Such a product is hazardous when it is flammable, explosive, corrosive, toxic or radioactive.
Gasoline is both flammable and explosive. Acids and alkalis, like lye, are caustic and toxic, that is, capable of causing injury or death through ingestion, inhalation or absorption through the skin.
Products in hardware stores and on supermarket shelves that may end up stowed away in a basement or kitchen cabinet can be hazardous. They fall into four categories: paints and solvents, automotive, household cleaners and pesticides. Methods of disposal vary. (See chart.)
Many people may not understand that "storm drains go directly into the harbor and bay," says Bob Moore, chief of Baltimore's Waste Water Facilities Division, Department of Public Works. "Anything that is thrown into a storm drain will travel through the sewer system under the city and wash out into the harbor and bay. People are under the mistaken impression that it's OK to throw hazardous substances down storm drains because they will go to the treatment plant. That's wrong."
When city residents pour something down their toilets or kitchen sinks, however, it does go to either the Back River or the Patapsco treatment plant.
PTC But some items, such as gasoline, concentrated acids, alkalis and large quantities of grease cannot be easily processed by the treatment plants and lead to pollution one way or another.
What exactly happens when hazardous waste is disposed of down the storm drain?
"Because hazardous waste is carried untreated directly down creeks, streams and lakes, [it] can interfere with aquatic life and wildlife and affect the quality of surface and ground water," says Sondra Goodman, director of Missouri's Household Hazardous Waste Project in Springfield, Mo.
When hazardous waste is flushed down your sanitary drain, it may be broken down at the treatment plant, but many toxic substances are not broken down or rendered harmless before entering surrounding waterways.
"We are mostly worried about industrial and commercial wastes," says Mr. Moore, "and we monitor them. There are also materials that can be separated from the water, but their final disposal, a residue called sludge, can be contaminated."
Heavy metals such as zinc, copper, lead, cadmium and mercury are the problems here. Sludge is typically used for agricultural purposes or reclamation of land areas. If contaminated with a heavy metal, it can be taken up by plants and indirectly by animals, affecting their health.
What happens when hazardous waste is simply dumped in a ditch or back yard?
It can poison local plant life and wildlife, compromise the health of children and adults in contact with the soil and filter through the soil into the ground water.
Each year, thousands of dogs, cats and other animals are poisoned by dumped antifreeze they lap up because of its sweet taste.
"One way to deal with antifreeze," says Ms. Goodman of the household waste project, "is to absorb it in cat litter and then dispose of the litter in the trash."
Even throwing hazardous waste into the trash can be a problem. Such waste carelessly tossed in the garbage has seriously injured refuse workers and damaged disposal equipment.
Ultimately, hazardous wastes will end up in landfills or in municipal incinerators. Baltimore has two incinerators for the city's garbage. Although the city keeps a tight rein on the quality of material that goes out the smokestacks, there's still some air pollution to worry about as well as potentially toxic ash, which typically goes to the landfill.
So what can you do with household hazardous waste?
*Use it up. Buy small quantities of things such as paints, pesticides and thinners. Use only the amounts you need. For example, when using a drain unclogger and the directions say to use one teaspoonful, don't use five times the amount thinking it will work better.
*Throw it in the trash. Some hazardous wastes in small amounts are acceptable at some landfills. Generally, you can dry out the substance. Paint can be dried with newspapers.
*Flush it. Using plenty of water, some hazardous substances can be put down your household drain. The toilet is recommended because it instantly dilutes the product and it is away from food preparation areas. One rule: Never mix chemicals together. Wait at least two hours between flushing ammonia and bleach to avoid a chemical reaction.
*Recycle it. If you have leftover paint, donate it to your church or a theater group. Paint thinner can be reused if the sludge settles out from the bottom and is discarded.
*Save for hazardous waste handler or reclaimers. Four quarts of motor oil can be reprocessed into 2.5 quarts of reusable oil. When you buy a new automobile battery, ask the store if they take back old ones. Leftover pesticides can be diverted to garden clubs, landscapers or exterminators. Call your local extension service for names of others who will use up pesticides.
In terms of waste handlers, two places that can direct you are the Maryland Environmental Service, (800) I RECYCLE, and the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, (301) 454-3742.
If you are cleaning out an old house or your grandmother's basement, or renovating a building, and there are cans or bottles of unmarked chemicals left behind, do not dispose of them until you get professional advice.
"You may find insecticides left by someone who used to do extermination on the side years ago," says Ralph Cullison, chief of the Environmental Services Division, of Baltimore's Department of Public Works. Chlordane, which is now banned, is one such old termiticide that is highly toxic and should be handled with care.
"For those types of chemicals, you can call the City Health Department for information on how to dispose of it," says Mr. Cullison.