issue 157 | March 1986
Not in my backyard
THE summer wind whipped up the dust on unpaved streets in Times Beach, Missouri. Exasperated by this nuisance, in the 1970s the residents hired a man to spray the streets with oil, the tried and true way to lick the problem. What they didn't know was that the fellow had also filled his truck with dioxin-laced sludge from a chemical factory. Dioxin, a by-product of herbicide manufacture, is so potent that one drop in 10,000 gallons is considered a dangerous concentration. In the shimmering heat the man sprayed his toxic brew and in his wake children played in the poisonous liquid.
When residents realised what had happened, they were horrified. Fearful of the cancers and genetic damage associated with dioxin exposure, they clamoured to be re-located. Under pressure, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bought them out and Times Beach is now a ghost town. Guards patrol its 'border' with the outside world.
The man with the truck chose a cavalier way to dispose of the waste he carried - one that ended up as a headline news catastrophe. But all over the world waste is being disposed of in similar surreptitious ways.
People don't like getting their hands dirty. Rubbish disposal has always been left to society's lower ranks, with an 'out of sight, out of mind' attitude from people not directly involved. If we can't see it, then it can't be a problem. But it is. Both the increase in the amount and complexity of waste produced today are threatening human health and the environment as never before.
In 1977, the US EPA estimated that over 42 million tons of industrial waste was hazardous. By 1985, Time magazine revealed that toxic wastes in the US 'now total an awesome 300 million tons generated each year'. Other countries, with smaller industrial economies, produce less. However, assessing waste output is difficult. Many countries, especially in the Third World, do not have a government department dealing with waste disposal. Their management is haphazard and few figures are available. The US has one of the best accounting systems - but even there is scope for miscalculation as a company illegally slips its effluent into a town's sewage system or a midnight dumper rolls barrels of poison down an old mineshaft.
In the UK, 40 per cent of the waste comes from agriculture (animal excreta, straw, silage, fertiliser and other chemicals); industrial waste accounts for one fifth, waste from mining is about 30 per cent and the rest comes from sewage and household sources. The pattern is similar in other industrialised countries.
The composition of waste has altered, the most dramatic change being in the number of chemicals we junk. Chemicals - whether as pills, pesticide or paint - form an essential part of our lives. Over 60,000 are currently used in the US, with 1,000 new ones being generated each year. The disposal of waste from this chemical feast has amplified existing shortcomings in the way we treat garbage, forcing us to confront what we would rather throw away.
Contamination of water, air and soil from wastes is widescale. In the early 1980s the EPA found the soil and water around the Baird and McGuire chemical factory in Holbrook, Massachusetts, tainted with arsenic and DDT. The town's drinking water wells had to be closed, but then it was discovered that the Cochato River - which also supplied Holbrook's drinking water - contained arsenic and napthalene in its sediment. The catalogue of illness believed to have been caused by the factory's negligence makes depressing reading. Between 1979 and 1983 men in the town were dying of bladder cancer at a rate of more than three times the average, and fatal uterine, cervical and ovarian cancers were claiming women's lives at more than twice the normal rate.
Other forms of waste affect health. Lead in the air, from petrol exhaust emissions, affects our brains. Heavy metals in the soil are taken up by plants and passed on to us when we eat them.
The effects of such contamination may not always be as dramatic as at Times Beach, but they are cause for concern. Aside from the aspects on human health, the environment takes a toll as well. Trees are dying from acid rain. Rivers run black with pollution. Mysterious green glob (waste from a petro-chemical factory) mars fields where children play.
Why is this happening? First off, the increase in complexity of waste caught disposal authorities on the hop. And today's hazardous waste is showing up the cracks in the disposal systems.
The most common form of waste disposal is the 'tip', nowadays called a landfill, but it is basically the same idea. This is the cheapest, most convenient option. The UK discards 85 per cent of its rubbish in this way, and it is a comparable figure in the US. Sites are administered differently, varying from country to country and region to region within a country. The UK's Hazardous Waste Inspectorate for instance found that 'all too many sites exude an atmosphere of total dereliction and decay, are under-equipped, under-manned and operated with a lack of professionalism'.
Landfills are holes in the ground. Rubbish deposited in them settles and then decomposes. Liquids seep through into the earth and down into the groundwater, into the water we drink and use. Nature can cope with a little such abuse. But the quantity and toxicity of waste have outstripped Nature's restorative powers. To cope with the problem of containing toxic oozings, modern landfill sites are lined with impermeable plastic, or clay, to isolate their contents. But this is still a short-term measure: 'landfills will eventually leak and may contaminate groundwater' says the US Office of Technology Assessment.
Some rubbish is disposed of by incineration, a method used by gardeners for burning leaves, by hospitals, schools and municipal waste authorities. Its effectiveness depends on what you are burning, at what temperature and where the smoke-borne waste comes down. Black smoke means that the fire isn't completely burning whatever is in the incinerator. This can bring added danger to the environment, as with the chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) found in lubricants, electrical transformers and a host of other things that we use every day. They are among the most poisonous chemicals ever produced, causing birth defects and deaths in test animals, and they are very difficult to get rid of. High-temperature (1,0000C) incineration is thought to destroy them. But if they are burned at a lower temperature, say the normal incinerator's 400'C or so, then deadly dioxins are emitted. High-temperature incineration however requires expert handling and specialised kilns, so it is expensive.
Dumping waste straight into the sea is especially popular with island nations such as Britain. The UK treats the seas around it as a personal dustbin, emptying most of its sewage there and allowing industries to shoot their effluvia into the fishy depths. Britain's dumping of nuclear waste in the Atlantic has caused a storm of outrage, and the practice has halted for the time being. But Britain, France and Japan are making overtures to the Pacific Island countries to pave the way for ocean dumping there, far away from vocal voters at home with their 'not in my backyard' attitude to waste.
Another major channel for waste is to recycle it. 'One of the more sensible options' comments the environmental group Greenpeace. And industry is beginning to see the benefits in reclaiming its toxic castoffs. For instance, the Allied Corporation in America has found that by reacting caustic sludge with other hazardous waste it can synthesize a raw material for gases used in air conditioners and refrigerators.
Other companies have found that spent fluid from the manufacture of semiconductors can be used to refine old crankcase oil, killing two toxic birds with one stone. And while recovery of toxics in this way accounts for only about one per cent of all the material that's generated, it shows that industry is beginning to take responsibility for its waste, spurred on by tighter environmental laws.
Criminologist Dr Alan Block has found organised crime - that's the mafia - involved at all levels of waste disposal. Ruses include mixing poisons into fuel oil to be burned in apartment incinerators. Dr Block believes as much as 40 per cent of heating oil sold in New York City area is laced with toxins which should be burned in high-temperature incinerators. The result breathing New York air is equivalent to smoking several cigarettes a day says environmentalist writer Barry Commoner.
Raising the status of rubbish disposal - by allocating funds, by setting up government bodies, even by sanitising its name into 'waste disposal management' is important. So is tightening up on legislation enforcement and recycling as much as we can.
Some authorities in West Germany and other countries have set up collection and safe disposal points for householders' toxic trash. Returning our hazardous empties keeps them out of landfills. But it also means we confront the dark side of 'user friendly' chemicals. People can use this knowledge in the market place by choosing not to buy as many of the products that permanently scar the environment.
But nothing can beat prevention. 'Reduce it, don't produce it' goes a Greenpeace slogan. And it applies to you and me as well. Take a look in your trash bin. Bleaches, fluorescent light tubes, paint thinners, nail polish, fly sprays and garden chemicals - these all add to the toxic problems. Households don't produce as much waste as industry, but it can be just as deadly.