Household Products Forest Hill MD
Bel Air, MD
New Freedom, PA
There's a time bomb in your basement, and you probably don't even know it. Down there with your furnace and tools are hazardous products for cleaning, painting, lubricating, disinfecting and scores of other uses. When used and stored properly, these household products are perfectly safe. But when it comes time to get rid of the quarter can of paint you've had for 10 years, the rat poison, the furniture polish or even mothballs that have been around longer than you can remember, these products can become downright dangerous.
When improperly disposed of, hazardous products can contaminate landfills, cause problems with plumbing and septic systems, and pollute the water and ground. They can catch fire, explode, corrode things, make you sick and even kill. It doesn't have to be this way. With a little know-how and effort, you can turn your basement from a dumping ground into a safe and clean storage area. Whether you have paint, charcoal lighter fluid, drain cleaners or wood preservatives, you can learn how to identify which materials are hazardous and how to get rid of them. Don't underestimate the perils of many of these products. The hazardous materials in your house are the same ones that are regulated by the government at industrial sites.
But because the materials are in your home - not at a business - they are not regulated. "This is something that everyone is affected by. That's the thing that is somewhat troubling," says Barry Connell, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Environmental Communications organization in Newburyport, Mass. "The thing that is encouraging, though, is it's something everybody can take control of." The government has an official name for all those dangerous products in your home: household hazardous waste, or HHW.
Although the quantities of hazardous products in individual homes may be small, they add up quickly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the average U.S. household contains more than 100 pounds of HHW. Americans, the EPA says, generate 3.2 trillion pounds of the stuff every year. And if you don't believe it's dangerous, consider the 2.3 million people who were treated at poison control centers in 2000, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Of that total, 731,000 were children under six, poisoned by everything from paints to rust removers - just the type of stuff you might leave unattended on a basement shelf. Thousands of consumer products are hazardous, and they can be broken down into five categories:
Automotive products. This includes gasoline, oil, antifreeze, lead-acid batteries, brake fluids and similar products.
Home improvement products. This includes paints (by far the number-one HHP), varnish, stain, paint thinner, caulk and the like.
Pesticides. This includes insecticides and insect repellents, rat and mouse poison, weed killer, flea collars, mothballs, disinfectants and similar products.
Household cleaners. These are more likely to be found in the kitchen or bathroom than the basement and include furniture polish, drain opener, oven cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, bleach and ammonia.
Miscellaneous. This catchall grouping includes household batteries, shoe polish, lighter fluid, arts and crafts materials, pool chemicals and cosmetics. Each of these products is dangerous in one or more ways. The different danger categories include: Poisonous or toxic: These are capable of causing injury or death through ingestion, inhalation or skin absorption and include benzene, ant traps, rat fumigants and old fire extinguishers. The labels often have the skull and crossbones and labels that state "Danger/Poison." Flammable or combustible: These can be set on fire easily and include gasoline, fuel oil, oil-based paints and paint thinners.
Explosive or reactive: These can detonate or explode from heat, pressure or incompatible substances. Examples include pool chemicals, chemistry kits and ammunition. Corrosive: Chemical actions of these products can burn and destroy living materials. Drain cleaners, rust removers and oven cleaners fall into this category. To find out which products in your basement - or garage, attic, garden shed, bathroom or kitchen, for that matter - are hazardous, first take a look at their labels. Products with the words "danger" or "poison" are the most hazardous, says Marie Steinwachs, director of the University of Missouri Household Hazardous Waste Project. Products with "warning" on the labels are moderately hazardous, and those with "caution" are slightly hazardous, she says. "By reading the label, you begin to understand the human health and environmental risks of these products," Steinwachs says. "It's amazing what's on labels: "This can cause birth defects, this can cause brain damage, this can cause damage to the central nervous system.'" Obviously you don't want old strychnine rat poison sitting around in your basement, or half-empty and unneeded containers of turpentine, paint thinners, weed killer or camping fuel.
So how do you get rid of them? There are basically four ways, not all of them acceptable. You can reuse or recycle it, flush it down the drain, put it out with the trash or have it disposed of by a hazardous waste collection center. The preferred method of disposal is to recycle or reuse the wastes. Automotive service centers may accept motor oil, batteries, antifreeze and other products. Your friends, local schools or theater groups might have a use for your leftover paint. Or you can find a program to recycle leftover latex paint. (See our related story.) There are very few items that can be flushed down the drain, and experts recommend against it for anything other than rinsing out the containers of some of the household products.
Pouring hazardous materials down a drain can damage pipes and septic systems, and wastewater treatment plants aren't set up to handle many of the materials. That means many of the hazardous materials won't be broken down properly before being discharged into lakes, rivers and oceans. There are also few products that are recommended for the trash. In general, empty containers can be disposed of that way, but never liquids. Some products - such as latex paints - are acceptable for landfill disposal if they are hardened or dried up. But you should contact your local officials before throwing away any product of concern. Most hazardous materials have to be disposed of the hard way - by taking them to a hazardous waste collection center or putting them out on special local hazardous waste collection days. The list is long - very long - of products that should be disposed of this way. It includes solvent-based glues, oil-based paints or primers, paint thinner, paint removers, rust removers, stains, wood preservatives, gasoline, brake fluid, antifreeze, weed killer, mineral spirits, drain cleaners, roofing tar, pool chemicals and ant killer. And those are just for starters. A decade ago there were just a few HHW collection facilities across the country.
Today there are more than 500 permanent collection programs, and the number is growing every year, says Connell of the Center for Environmental Communications. He says there are thousands of other hazardous waste programs and collection events each year so people can get rid of those hazardous products from their homes. One of the first such programs was the Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County, Wash., which serves Seattle and the surrounding area. Ray Carveth, the program's supervisor of field services, says the number of programs is multiplying because of the public demand for them. Public awareness about HHW has never been higher, and people realize they need to get rid of their waste in a responsible manner. "What we've found out is it's everywhere in our community, and some of it's pretty nasty stuff," Carveth says. To find out if there is a hazardous waste collection program near you, call your local government offices or the offices of your state's environmental or natural resources agency. They usually know where the programs are. There are also places that sponsor curbside HHW pickup days, or set up in a parking lot for a day or two and collect hazardous wastes from consumers. Still, many people - particularly in rural areas - don't have access to collection programs, making it difficult for them to get rid of their waste. "What do they do? They feel guilty, but they throw them out in the trash," Connell says.
"Or they keep them, and the longer they keep them, then the greater the likelihood the container will deteriorate or some kid will get into them." Nowadays experts talk about the need to cut down on the use of hazardous products in the first place. That way there will be less to dispose of. For now, though, you never know what you might find in old homes. Connell says when he moved into his house, he opened up a garage cabinet and found a 20-pound bag of DDT, a highly toxic pesticide that was banned 30 years ago. There is also concern on down the road about how people are going to get rid of all those computer monitors and TV sets as the new generation of computers and digital televisions become popular. Carveth says he recently read that 1,500 World War II veterans are dying every day, making him wonder what might have accumulated in their basements over the past four or five decades. "There are still an awful lot of basements out there," he says.