Toxic Waste

Toxic waste is any unwanted material in liquid, solid, or gas form that can cause harm (e.g. by being inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin). Many of today’s household products such as televisions, computers and phones contain toxic chemicals that can pollute the air and contaminate soil and water. Disposing of such waste is a major public health issue.

Toxic materials are poisonous byproducts as a result of industries such as manufacturing, farming, construction, automotive, laboratories, and hospitals which may contain heavy metals, radiation, dangerous pathogens, or other toxins. Toxic waste has become more abundant since the industrial revolution, causing serious global health issues. Disposing of such waste has become even more critical with the addition of numerous technological advances containing toxic chemical components. Products such as cellular telephones, computers, televisions, and solar panels contain toxic chemicals that can harm the environment if not disposed of properly to prevent the pollution of the air and contamination of soils and water. A material is considered toxic when it causes death or harm by being inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin.

The waste can contain chemicals, heavy metals, radiation, dangerous pathogens, or other toxins. Even households generate hazardous waste from items such as batteries, used computer equipment, and leftover paints or pesticides. Toxic material can be either human-made and others are naturally occurring in the environment. Not all hazardous substances are considered toxic.

Toxic Waste Types

Toxic waste products are divided into three general categories:
1. chemical wastes, 2 radioactive wastes, and 3 medical wastes.

1. Chemical wastes, such as those that are considered corrosive, flammable, reactive (that is, chemicals that interact with others to create explosive or toxic by-products), acutely poisonous, carcinogenic, mutagenic, and tetratogenic—as well as heavy metals (such as lead and mercury)—are placed in the first category.

2. Radioactive wastes include elements and compounds that produce or absorb ionizing radiation and any material that interacts with such elements and compounds (such as the rods and water that moderate nuclear reactions in power plants).

3. Medical wastes are a broad category, spanning the range from tissues and fluids capable of harbouring infectious disease-causing organisms to the materials and containers that hold and transfer them.

The world’s most dangerous chemical toxins, which are commonly grouped into a collection called the “dirty dozen”by chemists and environmentalists, are categorized as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Several POPs are pesticides: aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, and toxaphene. Other POPs are produced during the combustion process. For example, dioxins and furans are by-products of chemical production and the burning of chlorinated substances, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are used to manufacture such products as paints, plastics, and electrical transformers, may be released into the air when those products are burned. Other toxins such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc belong to a wider group of chemicals called persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), which include the dirty dozen and can linger in the environment for long periods.

Hazards – Real Life Cases

Although limited cases of accidental poisonings, such as from the accidental ingestion of lead and household cleaners, occur daily throughout the world, one of the first high-profile episodes of mass poisonings affecting neighbourhoods and whole cities occurred in Minamata, Japan, in the 1950s. Many of the town’s residents contracted mercury poisoning resulting from the Nippon Chisso Hiryo Co.’s manufacturing of acetaldehyde, and that material was later associated with the deaths of at least 3,000 people. Mercury from the production process spilled into the bay and entered the food chain, including seafood, which was the town’s primary protein source. Deformed fish appeared in Minamata Bay, and townspeople exhibited strange behaviours, including trembling, stumbling, uncontrollable shouting, paralysis, hearing and vision problems, and body contortions. While mercury was long known to be a toxin (the neurological degeneration caused by mercury used in hat making in the 19th century led to the phrase “mad as a hatter”), Minamata vividly highlighted its dangers in the food chain.

Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation used an empty canal in Love Canal, a section of Niagara Falls, New York, in the 1940s and ’50s to dump 20,000 tons of toxic waste in metal drums. After the canal was filled and the land given to the city, houses and an elementary school were built on the site. By the late 1970s the toxic chemicals had leaked through their drums and risen to the surface, resulting in high rates of birth defects, miscarriages, cancer and other illnesses, and chromosome damage. The neighbourhood was subsequently evacuated by September 1979.

Dust from the remains of the three World Trade Center buildings that were destroyed during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York were found to contain mercury, lead, dioxin, and asbestos. Aside from the dangers of breathing in toxic building materials, the attacks raised concerns about potential sabotage of toxic waste sites, such as storage facilities adjacent to nuclear power plants, or of the transport of such waste between sites. More than 15,000 chemical plants and refineries nationwide were also in danger, with more than 100 of them putting at least a million people at risk should an attack occur.