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About Household Hazardous Waste

Experts estimate that the average household stores up to ten gallons of hazardous materials. If this surprises you, take a look under your kitchen and bathroom sinks and in your garage, basement, or workshop.

Cleaning agents and disinfectants, polishes, paints and solvents, car care products, batteries, pesticides - we all use them. Some of us also store and use hazardous artists' supplies and photography chemicals.

The products we store contain a variety of heavy metals, petroleum products, environmentally persistent chlorine-containing organics, and other toxic substances. Such substances can be hazardous during their use, if stored improperly, and if disposed of improperly. In The Soundbook we are most concerned with disposal, because whatever leaves our homes in garbage, sewage, runoff, or groundwater can reach Long Island Sound.

The single best way to diminish pollution from our homes, of course, is to diminish the quantities of hazardous materials that we buy. Don't rely on chemical overkill to solve a problem. First, identify the least hazardous material for the job at hand. Then, don't buy a ten-gallon bucketful if one gallon will do.

When you are finished, pay attention to what you do with the leftovers. Our usual methods of disposal in garbage or in wastewater headed for a septic system or sewage treatment plant are unacceptable for most household hazardous wastes. Potential pollutants in wastewater can be carried unchanged into natural waters that flow to the Sound, and those in garbage can also enter the environment when the garbage is burned or landfilled. Nor is it acceptable to pour hazardous materials into the storm sewer or onto the driveway or the ground, because water from these sources reaches the Sound, too.

Do you change your own oil and other automobile fluids? The EPA estimates that approximately 180 million gallons of used motor oil are poured into storm sewers or dumped on the ground by do-it-yourself mechanics each year. Each quart of used motor oil can contaminate 250,000 gallons of water. Not only is the oil itself a hazard, but it contains heavy metals too.

If you change your oil at home, collect the used oil, don't mix it with anything, and take it to a gas station, oil collection site, or hazardous waste collection site. In New York state, large gas stations must take the oil and retailers that sell over 1,000 gallons of oil a year must also take it. In Connecticut, every town must have a designated oil collection center of its own or one that is shared with another town. Also, you must not dispose of old automobile batteries in your regular garbage. In addition to hazardous chemicals, automobile batteries contain metal that can be recycled. In Connecticut and New York state, locations that sell new batteries are required by law to take back old ones.

The best way to get rid of household hazardous waste is to take advantage of a community collection day. Such days are often sponsored by individual towns. A few of the materials that should be disposed of only in this manner are pesticides of any kind, oil-based paints, varnishes, gasoline and kerosene, motor oils, organic solvents, batteries, chemical fertilizers, swimming pool chemicals, and artists supplies.

In general, soaps, detergents, disinfectants, and ammonia-based cleaning products can be flushed down the drain with plenty of water. If you have a septic system, however, do check labels for precautions that may apply to you. And if you are in doubt about how to dispose of a particular item, play it safe and wait for a collection day or locate someone who can give you advice on what to do. Try calling your local recycling coordinator or public works department. Information is also available in Connecticut from the Household Hazardous Waste office at the Department of Environmental Protection in Hartford and in New York from the Hazardous Waste office of the Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany.

There is a growing movement towards the establishment of centralized hazardous waste collection sites. In New Haven, such a site is run by the Regional Water Authority. It is open on weekends 5 months a year and provides advice over the phone all year, round. Several permanent collection sites are available on Long island - one in Hicksville managed by Nassau County and others managed by the Suffolk county towns of Riverhead, Southold, Southampton, and Shelter Island. If a central collection site is proposed for your area, do take the time to let state and local legislators know that you support the idea. Another idea that is gaining favor and should be supported is the use of a mobile hazardous waste collection van that can serve several towns.

Soundkeeper, Inc.