Toxic Chemicals and Hazardous Wastes in the U.S Term Paper

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Toxic Chemicals and Hazardous Wastes in the U.S.

The majority of chemicals produced and used by man have proved to be extremely beneficial to the human society and have contributed to a better way of living. However, indiscriminate and improper usage of such chemicals and their toxic byproducts have also led to dangerous levels of pollution that have compromised our quality of life and even threatened the survival of not only human beings but many other species of animals and plants present on our planet. (Hazardous Wastes and Toxic Chemicals) Despite state and federal regulations regarding release of toxic chemicals into the environment, many industries continue to release such products. Across the United States, the volume of toxic chemicals discharged into the environment has been estimated to be in the order of billions of pounds. Out of the 80,000 modern-day chemicals known to man, only a small fraction of them have been evaluated by the EPA for harmful effects. It is true that not all chemicals have harmful effects but a few of them definitely do. A list of 245 chemicals which are known to or at least suspected of being carcinogenic has been prepared by the National Toxicology Program. (Brown; Earth Policy Institute, 132)

According to statistics, approximately 7.8 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were discharged into the environment by various units in the U.S. In 1999. This amounts to 28 pounds of such chemicals per person in the U.S. Metal mining and electrical generating units contributed 4 billion and 1.2 billion pounds respectively. Other industries contributing to this dangerous pool of toxic chemicals in the environment include the metal refining and manufacturing industries, chemical manufacturing industry and paper manufacturing industry. (Toxic Pollution) Toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDT which are persistent organic compounds are known to persist for quite long times and have been known to get accumulated in the fatty tissue. These chemicals can pass through the umbilical cord into fetuses and through breast milk into babies. Some toxic chemicals can ape the activities of hormones and upset the reproductive systems leading to various complications. Some of the most dangerous and toxic chemicals which can cause serious health problems include POPs or Persistent Organic Pollutants and heavy metals. (Hazardous Wastes and Toxic Chemicals); (Tompkins; Smith, 373)

Exposure to heavy metals has been known to cause various types of cancers, autoimmune diseases, kidney damage, and developmental retardation. Exposure to PCBs may be associated with limited attention span and reading comprehension in children. Lead-based paints and fumes from leaded gasoline may also lead to lead poisoning, which many scientists feel, may be linked to attention-deficit disorder, anemia, mental retardation and aggression in children. Many countries have got together to ban or control twelve of the known highly toxic chemicals known as the "dirty dozen." Apart from PCBs and DDT, these 12 chemicals include dieldrin, chlordane, aldrin, heptachlor, toxaphene, endrin, mirex, dioxins, furans and hexachlorobenzene. The dangers of many of the "old poisons" like mercury and lead have been studied but many of the health hazards of modern-day chemicals have yet to be determined. For example, the new breed of chemicals which have found their way into cosmetics, household products and even medicines, have not yet had their effects assessed. According to EPA's own admission, the average American's expectation that basic toxicity testing would be available has not been met and most of the chemicals used commercially have not been tested at all. At 400 parts per billion, the PBDE or Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether body burden of 15 million Americans is a hundred times more than the PBDE concentration found to cause permanent damage in experimental animal models. Again, almost 1 million U.S. children have unacceptable blood levels of lead. These are extremely disturbing statistics and some concrete steps need to be taken to control the level of toxicity not only in the U.S. environment but all over the world. (Hazardous Wastes and Toxic Chemicals); (Tompkins; Smith, 373)

All kinds of human activities produce waste. However, not all of them are hazardous. Hazardous waste can be contained-gas, solid, liquid or sludge wastes that possess characteristics that may prove to be harmful or dangerous, not just for human health but also to its surrounding environment. Waste can be termed as hazardous if it has the following attributes: (i) it is a fire hazard, (ii) it is explosive, (iii) it contains toxic chemicals, (iv) it generates toxic gases, (v) its reaction with air or water is violent, (vi) it is caustic or corrosive, (vii) it is radioactive, and (viii) it is biologically viral. As per EPA statistics, the U.S. industry produces 150 million metric tons of hazardous wastes every year. Most of the wastes are by-products of industries like paper, pesticides and paint manufacturing, metal refining, pharmaceutical, leather factories, textile mills, oil refineries and chemical plants. (Hazardous Wastes Quick Finder); (E-Waste - the great e-waste recycling debate)

Hazardous waste may be categorized as (a) Listed wastes - these are hazardous wastes listed by the EPA into 3 divisions, viz. The K-List (containing source-specific wastes), the F-List (non-specific source wastes), and the P- and U-List (containing commercial chemical products that have been discarded). (b) Characteristic wastes - these are hazardous wastes that are not mentioned in the list but may still prove to be hazardous if they display any one of the properties such as ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity and toxicity. - Universal wastes - these are widely-generated wastes which include mercury-containing equipments, batteries, bulbs, and pesticides. (d) Mixed wastes. (E-Waste - the great e-waste recycling debate) Another major category of Hazardous waste in the modern times is that of e-waste. This is the waste generated from obsolete computers, TVs or mobiles and their worthless parts which ultimately end up in the dump yard as scrap. It has been estimated by the U.S. National Safety Council that the number of obsolete computers owned by the U.S. is currently more than 300 million. Even if they are exported to developing countries for disposal or recycling, they ultimately reach the scrap and generate more poison for the environment. (Gyorgy, 126)

The treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous wastes must follow strict guidelines in order to minimize the risk posed to human health as well as to the environment. Some of the approaches used for these purposes include process modification, resource recovery, recycling and waste exchange, in-house volume or toxicity reduction, waste fixation, incineration, solar evaporation or land treatment, chemical treatment, deep-well injection, and secure landfills. Out of these approaches, the last one is the most frequently used one. (Hazardous Wastes Quick Finder); (E-Waste - the great e-waste recycling debate) the abhorrent practice of choosing landfill sites for dumping hazardous wastes in regions populated by politically powerless and poor people has been stopped since violent protests marked the choice of an African-American county in North Carolina as a PCB landfill in the mid 1980s. (Hazardous Wastes and Toxic Chemicals)

Radioactive wastes are even deadlier and persist in their lethality for hundreds of years. Radioactive wastes can be categorized into Low-level waste -- LLW, High-level waste -- HLW, and Uranium mill tailings. Low-level wastes include tools, filters, protective clothing, rags, medical tubes and other items contaminated with radioactive substances. High-level wastes include used or irradiated fuel from nuclear reactors. Uranium mill tailings refer to the residues left after uranium and thorium are extracted from the natural ore. (Gyorgy, 127); (Radioactive Waste) the range and use of radioactive substances is wide and varied with extremely trace amounts being used in scientific laboratories to relatively heavy amounts being used in nuclear power reactors. Therefore, the wastes generated also differ in volume and strength and so do its waste management techniques. (Cember, 478)

The proper and safe disposal of such wastes in the U.S. is a major area of concern. The use, handling and disposal of these materials are the joint responsibility of governmental organizations like the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- NRC, the Environmental Protection Act -- EPA, Food and Drug Administration -- FDA and the State governments. Improper storage and disposal of radioactive wastes can prove to be extremely hazardous. Individuals exposed to radioactive substances can develop cancer and even die depending upon the length of time and quantity of radioactive substances to which they have been exposed. These wastes have the ability to damage and kill living cells in humans and other living beings. Disposal of low-level wastes takes place at disposal facilities that have been approved of by the "Agreement States" or the NRC. The site is analyzed as to the performance of the disposal facility even after thousands of years. Currently, there are 3 low-level waste disposal facilities in the U.S., one each in Richland at Washington, Clive at Utah and Barnwell at South Carolina. For the disposal of high-level nuclear wastes, the U.S. Department of Energy has sought authorization form the NRC to build a deep geologic repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. This license application is still awaiting approval from the NRC. (Gyorgy, 130); (Radioactive… [END OF PREVIEW]

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