Did you know on average, each person in the United States produces an average of 4lbs of household hazardous waste each year? It is a common thought to believe that the “small” amount of hazardous household waste each individual produces makes such a minimal impact on the world. Nearly every activity leaves behind some kind of waste in the environment. When you take into account how many people there are in the world – 7.4 billion to be exact – that waste adds up quickly. This number becomes especially frightening when looking at the amount of hazardous waste generated and disposed of, in the United States alone, which is estimated to be 7.6 billion of tons per year. Between the years of 1930 and 2000, global production of man-made chemicals increased from 1 million to 400 million tons each year and has been steadily increasing since then.
Hazard vs. Risk
The terms “hazard” and “risk” are often interchanged, and thought to have similar meanings to most of us. In reference to chemicals though, the terms are quite different.
- Hazard – refers to the inherent properties of a chemical substance that make it capable of causing harm to a person or the environment.
- Risk – is the possibility of harm arising from a particular exposure to a chemical substance, under specific conditions.
To understand risk, we need to know both what the inherent hazard is and the degree of exposure. With every hazardous material, there is a risk of potential harm being done, which is increased by how much of the hazardous material is exposed to certain things. An example being hydrofluoric acid: This chemical is used in pharmaceuticals which is generally a safe practice, however, if someone working with this acid accidentally gets it on themselves, it will likely cause 3rd degree burns. Potential exposure to the chemical is high if the chemical is handled with bare hands without proper personal protection equipment (PPE). This creates a high-risk situation.
Once we understand the risk of something, we can then either reduce it or manage it. Many businesses are not able to reduce the amount of waste they create so they must look to manage it. In the example above, a way to reduce the hazard is to handle the chemical properly and the person handling it wears the proper personal protection equipment, which lowers the risk of burns. If a chemical is no longer needed for production, another way to lower the exposure risk is to look for the best environmental waste disposal method to minimize the impact on humans and the environment.
How Chemicals Move Throughout the Environment
The different ways a person can come into contact with hazardous chemicals are called exposure pathways. There are three basic exposure pathways: inhalation, ingestion, and dermal (skin) contact. Since chemicals can move through air, soil and water, they can be found in the air we breathe, the soil our plants grow in, water we drink, and the food we eat. Some common ways a person may be exposed to hazardous chemicals include:
- Water – Exposure can occur when people drink, shower, bath, or swim in contaminated groundwater or surface water. If someone goes swimming in waters that have been polluted by chemicals, they may not realize it until they’re having a reaction.
- Soil, Sediment, or Dust – Exposure can occur if contaminated soil, sediment or dust is inhaled or makes direct contact with skin. This form of exposure is very common in children, and is currently a huge problem in Imperial County, California.
- Air – Exposure can occur when people breathe in hazardous chemical vapors or air that is contaminated by hazardous chemicals or dust.
- Food – Exposure can occur when people eat certain foods that have been contaminated. Food contamination can occur if the food has come into contact with hazardous chemicals either through water, or in secondary consumers being contaminated by primary consumers.
Stay tuned for Part II where we will discuss EPA government regulations, and what you should do about it. If you want to learn more about these issues and what you should be doing, please contact us.