Posted by: Green Knight | June 19, 2011

Hazardous vs. Toxic

I’ve been meaning to say something about this for a while now.  As Alexander Pope wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” See, and we all thought it was “a little knowledge.”  We had less of it than we thought, eh?  Myself included; the culture transmits transcription errors the same way DNA does. People are concerned but not informed, and that second step is necessary to make rational decisions.  It’s the same thing with this morning’s topic.  People use the terms “hazardous waste” and “toxic waste” interchangeably, but they’re not necessarily the same thing.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, RCRA, passed in 1976, is the EPA law that regulates hazardous and solid waste.  To be a “hazardous” waste, it needs to exhibit one or more of four “characteristics.”  It can be an ignitable liquid with a flashpoint of less than 140° F (60° C), or a solid capable of spontaneous combustion through friction, absorption of moisture from the air, or spontaneous chemical changes.  That’s not the same as a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) “flammable,” because DOT uses different flashpoints, but the overlap is huge.  The flashpoint is basically the temperature at which something will keep burning once lit. Ignitability can also apply to compressed gases, explosives, and oxidizers.

A waste can also be hazardous due to being corrosive.  Remember using pH paper in science class?  Water is neutral.  It consists of H+  and OH  ions, or H2O.  When a substance isn’t balanced between the two, it’s a corrosive.  Too many H+ ions, and you have an acid.  Too many OH− ions, and you have a base, or alkaline or caustic material.  What do you clean your concrete driveway with?  Muriatic acid, which is just a dilute form of hydrochloric acid, HCl.  It’s got that H+ in there.  What can you neutralize it with if you poured on too much?  Caustic soda, aka sodium hydroxide, NaOH, with that

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OH hydroxyl radical to neutralize the H+ .  What’s left after the reaction?  HOH (=H2O, water) and NaCl, or table salt.  There are all sorts of salts, but that’s the one you have in your cabinet.  DOT’s definition of corrosive doesn’t involve pH, it relates to  the rate at which a substance will eat up certain grades of steel or aluminum, or human skin tissue.  That’s why, in class, I’d say “bring me a stopwatch and the new kid!”

[EPA’s definition also includes the degradation rate of a certain grade of steel, but it’s a different grade from DOT’s. Go figure.]

The third characteristic that can make a waste hazardous is if it’s reactive.  Reactivity is a bit harder to define; it’s kind of a grab-bag.  Stuff that’s unstable and explodes after it dries out.  Materials that react with air, grabbing the oxygen and undergoing rapid oxidation, boom.  Things that are water-reactive, like magnesium, sodium, or potassium…if it’s on fire, DON’T try to put it out with a hose.  Or compounds that are shock-sensitive.  We all know not to drop a jar of nitroglycerine, but most don’t know that picric acid is stable when dissolved in water or mineral oil, but when dried out and crystallized, a little tap can blow up the building in what firefighters call a BFK (big fucking kaboom).  There; I swore I’d never swear on here, but I just did.  Complain to my elected officials, but since the Census has us rewriting the districts, I don’t even know who they are anymore.

The fourth characteristic is toxicity.  If a waste is toxic, it can poison you, systemically or targeting specific organs.  It doesn’t necessarily have to exhibit any of the other characteristics.  Here’s the deal, folks.  Under RCRA, the EPA can regulate a waste as hazardous due to physical, chemical, or biological properties.  They toyed with regulating biohazards from 1988-1990, but backed off after that.  I don’t have time or the gumption right now to get into the Medical Waste Tracking Act.  But go back and reread what I just said.  Physical, chemical, and biological.  Radiological isn’t in there, because that’s handled by the U.S. Department of Energy separately.  DOE isn’t one of my favorite outfits (neither is HUD for lead-poisoning, or the Corps of Engineers for several reasons), but radioactive stuff is their department.  For nitpickers, there’s “mixed waste,” which is radioactive AND hazardous under RCRA, and it wasn’t fun watching all those different agency types struggling for supremacy.  Too many chiefs.

The point is, and I kept coming back to it over and over when teaching OSHA safety courses, that physical hazards can kill you dead right away.  Carole King  dislodges a brick “up on the roof,” and you left your hardhat in the back of the truck.  Ya dumbass.  Now you be dead…physical hazards act immediately, way before the chemistry can mess with your system.  Chemical hazards are different; some pose acute hazards where one whiff can kill ya, others take their time, are chronic, and build up to mess you up while you weren’t paying attention, but now you have a permanent affliction.  If you listened to the radio show recently, you heard me admonishing people for not reading labels, at home or at work.  I do what I can for ya, and I’m not exactly getting rich doing it, but I give a damn.

Here’s a reminder: I’ll be back on web radio July 12th, at noon central time, on my friend Diane Tegarden’s show, the Firewalker Flare.  Last time I talked about waste minimization at home; this time it’ll be about doing it at the workplace.  Or any Greenpeace-related questions you feel like calling in…after 30 years, GP has roped me back into service.  I’ve been put in charge of organizing weekly meetings, hooray!

[I didn’t cover “listed” hazardous wastes above; that’s a thorny topic that deserves a separate post plus brandy and a cigar for the narrator.  It’s complex.]

And I’ll never forget the time I accidentally left my metal clipboard with the hazardous waste sticker on it, marked K086 for ink waste, at the local library, and the staff freaked out.  This was well before 9/11, too.

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