Disposing of Hazardous Materials: Public Safety & Controversy

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  • 0:01 Hazardous Materials
  • 1:07 Disposing of Hazardous…
  • 2:59 Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Hazardous materials come in all types and from many sources. Because they may be harmful to human health, it's important to dispose of them properly and safely. It's also due to this potential harm that both their use and disposal are controversial.

Hazardous Materials

When you think of hazardous materials, images of big waste bins with radioactive symbols on the side might come to mind. But really, hazardous materials are any materials that have the potential to adversely affect public safety, so they can be a number of different things. And sometimes, something is not hazardous in small amounts, but can pose a risk when there's a lot of it. Because so many things fall under the category of hazardous materials, and because they can pose serious risks to human health, it's a highly controversial topic and one that you should be familiar with.

Hazardous materials come from a number of sources. They may come from your local auto mechanic in the form of vehicle fluids, like oil, gas, and antifreeze. They may come from your city's hospital in the form of biomedical waste, biological specimens, or sharps, such as needles and scalpels. Or, they may even come from your own home in the form of septic waste and household cleaners. These are just a few examples, too. Science labs, grocery stores, gas stations, office buildings - the types of sources are as numerous as the types of hazardous materials themselves.

Disposing of Hazardous Materials

So, if hazardous materials come from just about everywhere, what's the big deal? Well, since they have the ability to harm the public, disposing of them is a huge problem. If you pour something down the drain, it ends up in the drinking water supply. If you dump it into a river, you're polluting the water and possibly harming the biota that inhabit this type of ecosystem, as well as any areas that the river water flows to, including underground. You can't just bury it in the ground because it could get into the soil, which is what we grow crops in, as well as seep down into groundwater and aquifers, which are a major source of fresh water for all sorts of purposes.

One of the best ways to deal with and dispose of a hazardous material is to read the label on the material's container. If there are specific disposal instructions, such as 'Do not pour down the drain,' or 'Do not expose to heat or open flame,' then you have some information that can help you dispose of it properly.

But not everything has a label with instructions. Medical waste doesn't come with a label, so instead you'll need to refer to written protocols that are in place for these types of materials. There should be extensive information about the type and severity of hazards the material poses to human health, as well as any environmental hazards.

There may also be hazardous material collection sites that are specifically designed to deal with certain types of waste. For example, you wouldn't want to throw your refrigerator into a landfill because there are harmful chemicals inside the machine that need to be dealt with appropriately. So, instead, you can call someone to pick it up, and they'll make sure it is disposed of properly. Some cities even have 'home recycling days' where you can drop off various appliances and electronics that are not safe to throw in the trash. The people collecting these hazardous materials are trained to deal with them in an appropriate manner.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle

Remember how I said YOU are a producer of hazardous materials in your own home? It's not a pleasant thought, but the good news is that there are ways to produce less waste as an individual or household. You can start by reducing the amount you throw away. Reusing containers (safely, of course) and using rags instead of paper towels will help reduce what ends up in the trash, hazardous or not.

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