Toxic substances

Developed nations such as the United States annually use more than 60,000 hazardous chemicals in their agricultural and manufacturing processes. Because at least 10,000 are introduced each year, often we know very little about their effects. When we began massive use of such chemicals, we did not know that by the 1970s human breast milk would become more contaminated with toxins than any allowable manufactured foods. We did not realize that measurable amounts of DDT would appear in the polar ice caps. We did not suspect that by 2000 Silicon Valley would have more Superfund sites, twenty-nine, than any other single U.S. location—all because of toxic wastes from manufacturing high-tech products such as disk drives and semiconductors. We did not realize that, because of their long lifetimes, many hazardous chemicals would be able to migrate from their present waste sites and would threaten persons living thousands of years in the future. On the whole, we have assumed that dangerous chemicals are innocent until proved guilty. Because we do very little sophisticated epidemiological testing and rarely take account of food-chain and synergistic effects, thousands of chemicals have become both important to our agricultural and manufacturing processes and ubiquitous in our environment. Hence, it is often difficult to prove that any one chemical is responsible for specific harms, even when we know that it is theoretically able to cause many statistical casualties.

Hazardous wastes, byproducts of manufacturing, scientific, medical, and agricultural processes, have at least one of four characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity (Wagner). Hazardous substances become wastes only when they have outlived their economic life. They include solvents, electroplating substances, pesticides such as dioxin, and radioactive wastes. Toxic substances, a subset of hazardous substances, have the characteristic of toxicity: the ability to cause serious injury, illness, or death.

Many persons became aware of the threat of hazardous wastes and toxic substances when American scientist Rachel Carson (1907-1964) wrote Silent Spring (1962), one of the earliest warnings of the dangers of pesticides, or when Michael Brown wrote his spellbinding account of hundreds of cancers, genetic damage, and birth defects near Love Canal, New York, and other waste sites in 1980. Indeed, hazardous-waste management has become one of the most serious environmental problems facing the world. In the United States alone, more than 5 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released each year into air, water, and land. Approximately 80 percent of hazardous waste has been dumped into thousands of landfills, ponds, and pits throughout the world, from Love Canal in New York, to Mellery in Belgium, to North-Rhine in Germany. It has polluted air, wells, surface water, and groundwater. It has destroyed species, habitats, and ecosystems. It also has caused fires, explosions, direct-contact poisoning, and numerous cases of cancer, genetic harms, neurological disorders, and birth defects.

Surprisingly, one-quarter of the mercury and nearly one-half of all dioxin released into the American environment is from the healthcare industry. The mercury comes from blood temperature gauges and batteries, for example, while the dioxin comes from burning chlorinated plastics, like the PVC tubing used in kidney dialysis. Both mercury and dioxin are emitted by hospital incineration, and each patient-day is responsible for 9 kilograms of solid waste. Much of the dioxin emitted is from biochemical waste, 60 percent of which is not handled adequately.

In part to protect workers and the public from the dangers associated with hazardous substances, the U.S. Congress passed laws such as the 1954 Atomic Energy Act; the 1975 Hazardous Materials Transportation Act; the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA); the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA); the 1977 Clean Water Act; the 1977 Clean Air Act; and the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act known as CERCLA or Superfund (Dominguez and Bartlett). These laws include provisions that require monitoring pollutants, reporting spills, preparing manifests describing particular wastes, and special packaging for transporting specific types of hazardous materials. The Clean Air Act regulates smelter emissions, for instance, and the Clean Water Act regulates mining-caused water pollution (Young). RCRA was passed to fill a statutory void left by the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which require removal of hazardous materials from air and water but leave the question of the ultimate deposition of hazardous waste unanswered. Although RCRA addresses the handling of such waste at current and future facilities, it does not deal with closed or abandoned sites. CERCLA focuses on hazardous-waste contamination when sites or spills have been abandoned; through penalties and taxes on hazardous substances, CERCLA provides for cleaning up abandoned sites.

Despite laws that govern dangerous substances, and despite the fact that 50,000 environmental assessments are prepared annually in the U.S., many to evaluate waste sites under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, hazardous wastes remain a major problem. One reason is that well-financed industrial waste polluters can dominate underfunded government regulators. Another reason is that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has allowed more U.S. waste to go to countries such as Mexico. The U.S.-to-Mexico waste flow doubled, for example, from 1994 to 1999, and yet Mexico has only one licensed hazardous waste facility. A third factor is that the use of toxic substances and the management of hazardous wastes raise ethical issues that have not been adequately addressed by existing regulations. These issues include siting, rights of future generations, workers's rights, free and informed consent, compensation, due process, appropriate ethical behavior under conditions of uncertainty, where to place the burden of proof regarding alleged waste harms, and work-ers's and the public's right to know.

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