Seeing the elephant

Home is where the hazards are

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno. His column, Greenlight, appears in this space weekly.

When it comes to environmental problems, household hazardous waste is the elephant in the room. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that American households generate 1.6 million tons of hazardous waste per year. That includes cleaning products, paint, insecticides, oils, batteries, old computers and literally thousands of other products that contain potentially hazardous materials, almost all of it destined for already overburdened landfills, where it continues to pollute the air we breathe and our water systems.

The thing is, most Americans approach the elephant blindfolded. Not only are they unaware of how to properly dispose of household hazardous wastes; they’re not even exactly certain what they are. Not all of it comes marked with a skull and crossbones. Microwaves, for instance. Electronics, such as computers and televisions. Hair spray, cooking oil, lice shampoo, photographic materials, general-purpose glue, toilet-bowl cleaners and jewelry containing mercury are just some items on the list.

Moreover, many household-waste products are known to cause eye and respiratory-tract irritation, asthma, nausea, fatigue and even cancer in animals and humans. For example, according to the California Coalition for Clean Air, the volatile organic compounds used in many cleaners hang around for hours, causing indoor pollution levels to rise up to 1,000 times greater than outdoor levels. In fact, the California Air Resources Board estimates that by next year, household waste products will tie with trucks and buses as a leading contributor to smog. By 2020, it’ll be No. 1.

Yet remarkably, while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulates VOCs such as formaldehyde in the workplace, according to the EPA, no standards have been set for VOCs in a nonindustrial setting.

I’ve interviewed literally dozens of local experts, including waste managers and water-system operators at the city and county level, about hazardous household waste. What can we do about it individually and collectively? What products cause the most damage? What are the proper methods of disposal? I thought such questions had easy solutions. Instead, each time, I got a pregnant pause, followed by one of three answers.

“If we try to educate the public about such products, and attempt to regulate them, the business community will be up in arms,” they’ll say.

Or, pointing to the economic recession, they’ll say, “We just don’t have enough money to inform the public right now, and even if we did, we wouldn’t have enough money to fix all the problems.”

The third reply is perhaps the most discouraging. Aware of the problem’s enormous scope, they’ll say, “It’s just too expensive to deal with.” Even though they’re acutely aware that we can’t afford not to deal with it, they sweep in under the rug.

If you’ve ever tried to sweep an elephant under the rug, you know how difficult that can be. As long as the manufacturers don’t have to pay for the damages their products create and consumers remain unaware of how to mitigate, household hazardous waste isn’t going to go away any time soon.