Household Hazardous Waste
(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)
A quick survey of any garage, bathroom vanity, or laundry room reveals how many of the chemical products we use at home are considered hazardous. Household cleaners, lawn and garden chemicals, paint, solvents, batteries, and automotive maintenance fluids, as well as any other products that are described as corrosive, flammable, toxic or reactive, are potentially hazardous both to human health and the environment if not used and stored as directed on product labels, and if not disposed of properly. The signal words danger, poison, warning and caution are required by federal law to be listed on the labels of hazardous products. These words tell us that the product we are purchasing is capable of causing severe burns, illness, blindness, fetal harm, or even death if not used, stored, or disposed of properly.
For children, the health risks associated with hazardous household products are typically greater than for adults. With their smaller bodies and endless curiosity, children are much more likely to come into contact with hazardous products in the home that have been stored or disposed of improperly, and to suffer ill effects from that contact. For example, in 2000, nearly 20,000 children were exposed to or poisoned by common household chlorine bleach.
Improper disposal of household hazardous products can also have environmental and human health repercussions within our communities. Sanitation workers can be injured by splashing chemicals or by explosions caused by hazardous household waste. If hazardous products are improperly dumped in the sink, yard or storm drain, or leach from the landfill, they also have the potential to poison drinking water supplies, damage sewage treatment plants, contaminate soil, and poison aquatic life in our rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.
The potential health and environmental consequences resulting from improper disposal of hazardous household products have spurred many communities, including Fairfax County, to institute a household hazardous waste collection program. An additional benefit of household hazardous waste programs for municipalities is the potential to reduce solid waste generation within the community through recycling and incineration of the majority of household hazardous products. In Fairfax County, two facilities, the I-66 transfer station on West Ox Road in Fairfax and the I-95 landfill on Furnace Road in Lorton, are available for homeowners to drop-off household hazardous waste, including aerosol sprays, paints, solvents, batteries, cleaners, pool chemicals, pesticides, and asbestos and mercury-containing waste, for disposal and recycling. The facilities are open to all Fairfax County residents, but do have limited hours of operation so it’s best to check the schedule before visiting.
Of the products accepted at Fairfax County facilities, the majority, including oil paints, many solvents, fuels, car batteries, sealants, and glues, are re-used as fuel, recycled for parts, or used in asphalt production. Others, including pesticides, pool chemicals, poisons, and lithium batteries, are incinerated in special high-heat facilities.
Over 18,500 residents participated in Fairfax County’s household hazardous waste collection program in 2004, disposing of almost 375,000 lbs. of waste. Cliff Taylor, supervisor of the program, estimates, however, that this represents 5 percent or less of the households in Fairfax County. “Fairfax County has had a permanent household hazardous waste program for almost 15 years,” he adds, “and education is still the key. Many people don’t realize that these products are potentially dangerous and that care should be taken with their disposal.” An additional problem for residents is determining which wastes are accepted at the facility and which can be safely disposed of at home. Taylor urges citizens to call the household hazardous waste program at 703-324-5230, TTY 711 or visit its web site if they are uncertain about disposal of a product.
In addition to homeowners, Fairfax County has been reaching out to small businesses, many of whom are deterred from proper disposal of hazardous waste by the costs charged by private disposal companies. Fairfax County hosts annual clean up days for businesses. In 2005, these will take place on July 27 and October 5 at the I-66 transfer station. Businesses must generate under 110 kilograms (approximately 220 lbs. or 27 gal.) of hazardous waste per month to attend. The clean up days are also open to Fairfax County agencies, and to businesses located in cities and towns within Fairfax County, and are an economical way for businesses to manage small quantities of hazardous waste. Prices for disposal range from $1 to $15 per gallon depending on the type of waste, offering a significant reduction in cost for many small businesses.
Proper disposal of household and small business hazardous waste is critical for protecting the health of our families and community, and for safe-guarding our soil and water resources. Equally as important, however, is reducing the use of hazardous products, particularly in our homes, by thinking before we buy. On average, an American household generates approximately 25 lbs. of household hazardous waste per year! We can help ensure healthy families and protection of our natural resources by buying safer alternatives to hazardous products, or by using product labels to help us purchase the least hazardous products available. Once a product enters the home, we can make sure we use and store it safely by reading and following the product directions. These steps, in addition to proper household hazardous waste disposal, will help us make our homes and communities safer and healthier.