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What can you do about hazardous leftovers around the house?

What should you do with the half-used cans of paint, left-over pesticides, and old bottles of thinners and cleaners in the garage or garden shed, or under the sink? Some people think you can toss them out with the trash, flush them down the toilet, or pour them down the nearest drain or storm sewer. But take a moment to read the labels. Many of these common household products, as well as pool and automotive supplies, contain chemicals that, if not disposed of properly, could be harmful to both you and the environment. Here we help you identify products that contain hazardous chemicals, and suggest ways to store, recycle, or get rid of any leftovers. A growing number of communities now have programs for collecting and properly getting rid of these products. If your area doesn't have such a program, see the box on page 128; it tells how a group of concerned citizens in Redlands, California, started one. The first step: identify the culprits Today's labels make it easier to identify products that contain toxic chemicals. Since the ingredients themselves are often daunting, unpronounceable chemical compounds that you won't be able to recognize, look instead for the words "danger," warning," or "caution." These have been federally designated as key labeling words; they indicate that a product contains at least one ingredient known to pose either acute or long-term health risks. If these ingredients find their way into a typical landfill or sewage system, they can leach into the water or soil. A label using a cautionary term other than the three mentioned above ("precaution" is the most common) indicates not that the product contains no dangerous substances, but rather that the federal government has not yet declared any of its ingredients to be hazardous. Legally, disposing of products bearing such labels does not require special care. When it comes to older products, identifying potential risks can be tricky. Often, labels are worn off or soiled, obscuring warnings and ingredients. In addition, these products may contain chemicals, such as lead (in paint) or DDT (in pesticides), whose hazardous potential is so great that they've been banned from current product formulations. Even if labels are still intact, they may not list warnings or potentially dangerous ingredients. This is especially true on older products, which often predate laws requiring warnings on labels. How do you know what you've got? For pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, you can call an EPA-funded, 24-hour hotline at (800) 858-7378; experts should be able to tell you any known health risks of using the product, and how to dispose of it properly. Unfortunately, there's no such hotline for identifying and handling old paints and other household products. If you can't find out any information about a product, the safest course is to assume that it's hazardous, and take it to a collection site. Next: use them, donate them, recycle them, or dispose of them The best way to get rid of a product containing hazardous chemicals is to use it up. A good alternative is to give it to someone else who can-perhaps a neighbor. Garden clubs or nurseries may accept left-over pesticides. Schools and recreation centers may welcome paints of recent vintage. Some service stations and recycling centers accept used automobile products batteries, oil, antifreeze. In communities served by sophisticated new sewage-treatment techniques, it may be permissible to pour less-toxic substances down the drain-with lots of water. And some waste-disposal services say it's all right to wrap some items and put them in your household trash. However, experts stress that the safest way to dispose of any potentially hazardous substance is to take it to a collection site. For local disposal practices, or for donation or collection sites, call your local refuse-disposal or environmental-health department (see the government listings in your telephone book, or call directory assistance; start by checking under Public Works, although agencies may be listed under a wide variety of names). For pesticides, always cheek with the EPA hotline. Never use or give away old paints, pesticides, or any other products that contain banned ingredients. Take them to a collection site. Hazardous-waste collection programs Many communities now sponsor collection programs. On the appointed day, trained workers accept, sort, and package wastes, which are then taken from the site to a hazardous waste facility for recycling, treatment, storage, or safe disposal. To find out about collection programs in your area, call your waste management division or health department. Or call local chapters of environmental groups; check the yellow pages under Environmental Organizations. A word of caution: some programs won't accept unidentified substances. Others refuse to handle products that contain banned ingredients. If you have no means of safely getting rid of a potentially harmful product, contain and store it safely. You might also consider starting a disposal program in your area (see the box at right). How to transport waste safely When you're ready to sort and pack up potentially hazardous products, keep children and pets away. If you smoke, don't do it while you work with chemicals. Make sure containers are well sealed. Wrap damaged or leaky containers in sheets of newspaper and box carefully as shown on page 126. Pack flammables, corrosives, and poisons in separate boxes. Store boxes safely until you're ready to go to the collection site. Then load them in the trunk or rear of your car-as far away from passengers as possible. Use smart, store smart You should always handle products containing hazardous chemicals in a sensible, safe manner. When using potentially hazardous products, follow the directions carefully and heed all warnings. Remember that toxic chemicals don't have to be ingested to cause great harm; chemicals can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled as volatile fumes. Never combine or repackage products. Children have died from drinking substances stored in food jars. It's best to leave substances in the original containers even if labels have fallen off; you might forget what you've put into a new container, whereas hazardous-waste collection technicians may be able to identify a substance from the shape of the original packaging. Store chemicals in a dry location, out of reach of children and pets. Keep poisons, corrosives, and flammables on separate shelves away from heat sources and combustible materials such as paint rags and old newspapers. If you must store products in cabinets under a sink, install childproof catches.

Starting a citywide collection program: here's how one group did it In 1985, Joan Dotson and the Redlands, California, chapter of the League of Women Voters staged the town's first cleanup event. Now it's a weekly service. "We started talking to city and county officials nine months before our first event," says Ms. Dotson. The city's solid waste department provided a secure site a fenced-in area close to downtown. The county helped by sharing funds from a state grant earmarked for research on waste disposal and water quality. That paid for a few advertisements, and for printing an eight-page educational booklet and a promotional flyer. All other services were donated. A local ad agency designed the flyer that was sent home with schoolchildren, distributed to service organizations, and posted widely. League members and the San Bernardino County Department of Environmental Health Services compiled the booklet. The League also provided speakers and spread the word in newspaper articles and over the radio. At that time, requirements for insurance were vague, and the group obtained none. We were lucky," Ms. Dotson admits. Tighter rules in effect now require such groups to carry insurance. A licensed hazardous-waste hauler donated her services. Environmental health experts provided by the county accepted, tested, sorted, and packed wastes. Firefighters, trained to handle toxic materials, stood by in case of emergency. After the first collection, the League tallied quantities and kinds of materials collected. "We shared the data with the city council, and asked that an annual cleanup day be established." Now, Redlands has a permanent site where hazardous waste and used motor oil can be dropped off every Saturday. The site is funded by a small fee (16 cents a month per household), added to residents' trash collection bills. "We get calls all the time asking how we did it," says Ms. Dotson. "The real credit belongs to the people of Redlands. They're the ones who care enough to make the program work."
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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