||The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (October 2011)|
Toxic waste is waste material that can cause death, injury or birth defects to living creatures. It spreads quite easily and can contaminate lakes, rivers, and the atmosphere. The term is often used interchangeably with “hazardous waste”, or discarded material that can pose a long-term risk to health or environment.
Hazardous wastes are poisonous byproducts of manufacturing, farming, city septic systems, construction, automotive garages, laboratories, hospitals, and other industries. The waste may be liquid, solid, or sludge and 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.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state departments oversee the rules that regulate hazardous waste. The EPA requires that toxic waste be handled with special precautions and be disposed of in designated facilities around the country. Also, many cities in the United States have collection days where household toxic waste is gathered. Some materials that may not be accepted at regular landfills are ammunition, commercially generated waste, explosives/shock sensitive items, hypodermic needles/syringes, medical waste, radioactive materials, and smoke detectors.
Toxic wastes often contain carcinogens, and exposure to these by some route, such as leakage or evaporation from the storage, causes cancer to appear at increased frequency in exposed individuals. For example, a cluster of the rare blood cancer polycythemia vera was found around a toxic waste dump site in northeast Pennsylvania in 2008.
The Human & Ecological Risk Assessment Journal conducted a study which focused on the health of individuals living near municipal landfills to see if it would be as harmful as living near hazardous landfills. They conducted a 7-year study that specifically tested for 18 types of cancers to see if the participants had higher rates than those that don’t live around landfills. They conducted this study in western Massachusetts within a 1-mile radius of the North Hampton Regional Landfill.
People encounter these toxins buried in the ground, in stream runoff, in groundwater that supplies drinking water, or in floodwaters, as happened after Hurricane Katrina. Some toxins, such as mercury, persist in the environment and accumulate. As a result of the bioaccumulation of mercury in both freshwater and marine ecosystems, predatory fish are a significant source of mercury in human and animal diets.
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Disposal is the placement of waste into or on the land. Disposal facilities are usually designed to permanently contain the waste and prevent the release of harmful pollutants to the environment. The most common hazardous waste disposal practice is placement in a land disposal unit such as a landfill, surface impoundment, waste pile, land treatment unit, or injection well. Land disposal is subject to requirements under EPA’s Land Disposal Restrictions Program.
Organic wastes can be destroyed by incineration at high temperatures; however, if the waste contains heavy metals or radioactive isotopes, these must be separated and stored, as they cannot be destroyed. The method of storage will seek to immobilize the toxic components of the waste, possibly through storage in sealed containers, inclusion in a stable medium such as glass or a cement mixture, or burial under an impermeable clay cap. Waste transporters and waste facilities may charge fees; consequently, improper methods of disposal may be used to avoid paying these fees. Where the handling of toxic waste is regulated, the improper disposal of toxic waste may be punishable by fines or prison terms. Burial sites for toxic waste and other contaminated brownfield land may eventually be used as greenspace or redeveloped for commercial or industrial use.
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Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Enforcement,. The Act gives the United States Environmental Protection Agency the authority to control the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was followed by the Toxic Substances Control Act, which took effect on January 1, 1977. The Act authorized the EPA to secure information on all new and existing chemical substances, as well as to control any substances that were determined to cause unreasonable risk to public health or the environment.
There has been a long ongoing battle between communities and environmentalists versus governments and corporations about how strict and how fairly the regulations and laws are written and enforced. That battle began in North Carolina in the late summer of 1979, as EPA's TSCA regulations were being implemented. In North Carolina, 31,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil were deliberately dripped in a 3-foot swath along some 240 miles of rural Piedmont highways, creating the largest PCB spills in American history and a public health crisis that would have repercussions for generations to come. The PCB-contaminated material was eventually collected and buried in a landfill in Warren County, but citizens' opposition, including large public demonstrations, exposed the dangers of toxic waste, the fallibility of landfills then in use, and EPA regulations allowing landfills to be built on marginal, but politically acceptable sites.
Warren County citizens argued that the toxic waste landfill regulations were based on the fundamental assumption that the EPA's conceptual dry-tomb landfill would contain the toxic waste. This assumption informed the siting of toxic waste landfills and waivers to regulations that were included in EPA's Federal Register. For example, in 1978, the base of a major toxic waste landfill could be no closer than five feet from ground water, but this regulation and others could be waived. The waiver to the regulation concerning the distance between the base of a toxic waste landfill and groundwater allowed the base to be only a foot above ground water if the owner/operator of the facility could demonstrate to the EPA regional administrator that a leachate collection system could be installed and that there would be no hydraulic connection between the base of the landfill and groundwater. Citizens argued that the waivers to the siting regulations were discriminatory mechanisms facilitating the shift from scientific to political considerations concerning the siting decision and that in the South this would mean a discriminatory proliferation of dangerous waste management facilities in poor black and other minority communities. They also argued that the scientific consensus was that permanent containment could not be assured. As resistance to the siting of the PCB landfill in Warren County continued and studies revealed that EPA dry-tomb landfills were failing, EPA stated in its Federal Register that all landfills would eventually leak and should only be used as a stopgap measure.
Years of research and empirical knowledge of the failures of the Warren County PCB landfill led citizens of Warren County to conclude that the EPA's dry-tomb landfill design and regulations governing the disposal of toxic and hazardous waste were not based on sound science and adequate technology. Citizens[who?] concluded also that North Carolina's 1981 Waste Management Act was scientifically and constitutionally unacceptable because it authorized the siting of toxic, hazardous and nuclear waste facilities prior to public hearings, preempted local authority over the siting of the facilities, and authorized the use of force if needed.
In the aftermath of the Warren County protests, the 1984 Federal Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act focused on waste minimization and phasing out land disposal of hazardous waste as well as corrective action for releases of hazardous materials. Other measures included in the 1984 amendments included increased enforcement authority for EPA, more stringent hazardous waste management standards, and a comprehensive underground storage tank program.
The disposal of toxic waste continues to be a source of conflict in the U.S. Due to the hazards associated with toxic waste handling and disposal, communities often resist the siting of toxic waste landfills and other waste management facilities; however, determining where and how to dispose of waste is a necessary part of economic and environmental policy-making.
TOXMAP is a Geographic Information System (GIS) from the Division of Specialized Information Services of the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) that uses maps of the United States to help users visually explore data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund and Toxics Release Inventory programs. TOXMAP is a resource funded by the US Federal Government. TOXMAP's chemical and environmental health information is taken from NLM's Toxicology Data Network (TOXNET) and PubMed, and from other authoritative sources.
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