In the 1984 cult classic movie, The Toxic Avenger, a cowardly janitor falls into a drum of toxic waste and becomes a hideous looking superhero that stops crime and saves the day. Unfortunately, most real exposures to toxic substances leads to injury, illness or even death.
A chemical or product is considered toxic if it is poisonous, radioactive, explosive, flammable, carcinogenic (causing cancer), mutagenic (causing damage to chromosomes), teratogenic (causing birth defects), or bioaccumulative (that is, increasing in concentration at the higher ends of food chains).
A horrific, real-life example of exposure to toxic waste happened shortly before the The Toxic Avenger debuted. Citizens of New York living just south of Niagara Falls discovered they were living on top of an actual, toxic waste dump nicknamed, The Love Canal. In the early 1950’s an abandoned canal project was the location used for dumping more than 21,000 tons of toxic waste. The dumpsite was covered over with clay and sold for $1. The property was later developed for a public school, 800 homes and 240 low-income apartments. By the late 1970s, the drums of toxic waste had eventually disintegrated and began leaking into the storm drains, streams, ground water and even into the basements of the homes. Residents of the neighborhood experienced a series of inexplicable illnesses such as epilepsy, asthma, migraines, kidney disease and abnormally high rates of birth defects and miscarriages. Following a slow reaction from local and state governments, the federal government stepped in to declare the site a State of Emergency and began relocating the families to safety. The disaster opened the eyes of many to the hazards of the forgotten dumpsites and lead to the adoption of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act — better known as, “Superfund.”
According to the US EPA, the act otherwise known as CERCLA, provided a Federal “Superfund” to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites as well as accidents, spills, and other emergency releases of pollutants and contaminants into the environment. Through CERCLA, EPA was given power to seek out those parties responsible for any release and assure their cooperation in the cleanup.
Currently, there are 1,344 “Superfund” sites in the US, 34 of those sites are in Ohio. The closest “Superfund” site to Meigs County is in Washington County.
The events that led to the enactment of CERCLA helped fuel the environmental justice movement and pushed the reduction of the use of products containing toxic or hazardous materials. Also, individuals became more aware of the hazardous products in their own homes and the need to safely handle, treat, store and dispose of the wastes.
Currently, the term “hazardous waste” has replaced the words,“toxic waste” but it has also expanded the meaning to cover much more. Manufacturers are required to label any products that contain hazardous substances. These labels may contain the wording “Danger”, “Warning” or “Caution”. A label with the word, “Danger” means it is highly toxic and may be considered a poison that can cause illness or death. People should limit the use of products containing this label as it will be difficult to use properly and hard to dispose of. A label with the words, “Warning” and “Caution” are considered less of a threat but still must be handled with care. A product with a “Warning” label may be considered to be a caustic cleaner that will breakdown substances such most detergents. Household bleach will normally contain a “warning” label that informs the user how to safely use the product.
The best way to prevent or reduce exposure to hazardous or toxic substances is to limit the amount coming into your home. There are several ways to make alternative cleaners or polishes with natural ingredients. Read the labels and determine the safest or the least harmful product to use. Only purchase the amount of the product you need. Protect yourself by following the directions for use of the product. Using more product than required does not mean better results. Finally, store products safely and securely. Never store hazardous chemicals near food or beverages or where children or pets could access them.
Real life exposure to toxic waste is no joke. Do your part to keep your family and your community safe.
Steve Swatzel is director of Environmental Health at the Meigs County Health Department.