When Anne Arundel County in Maryland hosted one of its semiannual household hazardous waste collection days, someone found it to be a convenient way to solve a waste problem: They left behind a 'stump bomb' once used by farmers to blow apart troublesome field obstructions.

The bomb squad was called to haul it away.

While bombs are not typical household wastes, the incident illustrates the types of dangerous materials which have accumulated in garages and basements — and in kitchens and bathrooms, for that matter — throughout the Bay watershed.

Some local governments, to keep these from being tossed in the yard, down the drain, or in the trash, are sponsoring household hazardous waste collection programs. Residents routinely bring gallons of anti-freeze, oil, paints, solvents and even things such as the long-banned insecticide DDT.

"It's amazing, when you announce one of these things what people will find in their basements," said Jeff Dunckel, of the Montgomery County, Md., Department of Environmental Protection. "There must be a lot of amateur chemists out there, that¹s all I can say."

Dunckel was one of several speakers at a recent one-day seminar sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Program's Local Government Advisory Committee to examine options local governments have for handling household hazardous wastes.

The chemicals used everyday around the home are often similar to, if not the same as, chemicals used by business and industry. But when business and industry get rid of those chemicals, they are often considered hazardous wastes.

Federal law exempts household trash from being regulated as hazardous waste.

"Just because it's legal doesn't mean that it cannot, or will not, contaminate the groundwater," said Amy Burdick, of the Anne Arundel County Bureau of Solid Waste.

Dumped down the drain it may pass through wastewater treatment plants not designed to handle toxics and be discharged into rivers. Dumped in lawns or through septic systems, it can pollute groundwater. If burned, it can pollute the air. And if placed in a landfill, it may eventually seep through the lining and reach water supplies.

Through any of these actions, the toxics can reach the Bay.

Because the federal and state governments have not regulated hazardous materials from the home, the decision of what to do — or not to do — about them has fallen on local governments.

While many have no special programs to handle such wastes, others are establishing special collection days during which people can bring in hazardous materials so they can be properly disposed of by hazardous waste haulers contracted with by the municipality. Some even offer year-round programs.

Speakers at the seminar said their programs were spurred by a mix of environmental concern on the part of local officials and citizen demand. Officials in Fairfax County, Va., for example, were getting 400 calls a month from people asking about hazardous waste disposal before the county established a permanent collection facility, said David Duncan, of the county's Fire and Rescue Department.

Another reason for local governments to act is to stem potential liability. Tracy Bone, of EPA's Office of Solid Waste, noted that while household hazardous wastes are exempted from regulations, municipalities could face problems if those materials cause contamination near the local dump. Of 1,200 Superfund sites nationally, she said, 25 percent are municipal landfills.

The costs of handling hazardous wastes are high. It costs an average of about $100 per person per visit to dispose of the wastes brought to a government-sponsored household hazardous waste collection facility.

"I think if you charge the amount that it costs, you're not going to have too many participants," said Shari Savage, of Chemical Waste Management, which contracts for household hazardous waste handling in three tidewater Virginia communities.

So the costs must be borne by local government or the authority which handles waste collections. Operating costs of the various household hazardous waste programs described by seminar participants were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, depending on the type of program and the number of participants.

In some cases, local officials are reluctant to spend that much money to handle hazardous materials that make up only a fraction of the community's total waste load. Also, national studies have shown that only about 1 percent of the households participate in hazardous waste collections.

Rich Batiuk, of EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office, said officials should consider the potential impacts of not assuring that people properly dispose of household materials. Chemicals dumped down the sink may shut down a community's wastewater treatment plant, he said, while cleanup of contaminated groundwater could be even more expensive.

Most pollution from household hazardous wastes is preventable, he said. And many speakers at the seminar talked about the need to educate the public about ways to minimize environmental impacts from household chemicals.

Several participants noted that costs can be minimized.

Many of the collected items can be recycled, including oil, antifreeze, and batteries.

Paint makes up a large part of many collections. To minimize the amount that had to be disposed of, Frederick, Md., organized a paint "drop and swap" as part of a household hazardous waste collection that allowed people to exchange partially used cans of paint, said Christina Pompa of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Also, she said, some paints were mixed into five-gallon containers of 'like' colors, and given to a nonprofit organization for use by low income people.

As a followup to the conference, the Local Government Advisory Committee plans to produce a manual on household hazardous wastes for local jurisdictions.


What you can do

If your community doesn't sponsor a hazardous household waste collection program, here are some general rules of thumb for handling and disposing of household chemicals:

  • Read the label — know what you are buying and what the potential hazards are.
  • Store products in their original containers so the label can be referred to whenever the produce is used.
  • Use alternative, less harmful products whenever possible (for example, boric acid is very effective in controlling roaches).
  • Use the least toxic product you can find and never buy more than you need.
  • If there is now household hazardous waste collection in you community, dispose of unwanted household chemicals in sanitary landfills. Pour liquids such as cleaning fluids into a plastic container that is filled with kitty litter or stuffed with newspaper. Allow it to dry outdoors before taking it to the landfill.
  • Take used motor oil and antifreeze to a gas station with an oil-recycling program.

Excerpted from Baybook: A Guide to Reducing Water Pollution at Home. Single copies are free from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.