Have you ever wondered how much hazardous waste you produce and how much harm it can cause you? Well, let me tell you that each person in the US produces about 4 pounds of household hazardous waste every year. Multiply that number by the global population and you get a really massive number. In fact, just the US alone produces between 20.3 to 29.1 million tons of hazardous waste. Since the world is becoming more industrialized and the population keeps growing, more and more resources are being used so the amount of waste generated has increased significantly, especially those produced by developed countries. However, not all the waste is being properly processed so it poses a threat not only to the environment but also to human health. Hazardous waste, specifically, can cause irritations, chronic diseases, and even lead to death. Therefore, it is important to ensure that these wastes are carefully treated in waste facilities as it can be toxic to humans.
First of all, you may be wondering what exactly is hazardous waste and how is it classified? By definition, hazardous waste is anything that has been discarded but can still harm the environment or public health. These wastes are dangerous byproducts of activities such as manufacturing, farming, and medical treatment or they could just be from household garbage.
They contain heavy metals, radiation, pathogens, or highly toxic chemicals like cyanides, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls. To identity hazardous waste, you have to take into account its reactivity with other chemicals which could cause an explosion or produce poisonous gas, flammability, toxicity, and how prone it is to corrode other materials. It is especially important for hospitals to pay attention to the disposal of medical waste since items such as used syringe needles, bandages, and swabs are also considered as hazardous wastes. Normally, these hazardous wastes are thrown into municipal waste collection centers to be sent to landfills or dumps but it doesn’t always happen due to the lack of resources. If these wastes are not treated, stored, or disposed of properly, then it poses as a potential hazard to human health.
Hazardous wastes can affect humans in many ways, ranging from the water they drink, the things they eat, and the air they breathe. Getting direct exposure to hazardous waste can cause chemical poisoning in humans since these wastes release chemicals to its environment. However, unattended waste like decomposed wet wastes with bad odor may attract flies, rats, and other creatures that spread diseases. One specific example of this is the 1994 pneumonic plague outbreak in Surat. Officials stated that it was due to the poor sanitary conditions from uncollected garbage since heavy monsoon rain created flooding in the poor part of the city. Likewise, if hazardous wastes are dumped near or into a body of water, it can contaminate the source of drinking water for the people and also affect the animals living there. Toxins like mercury and lead can persist in the environment for several years so aquatic animals may bioaccumulate these toxic substances in their bodies and biomagnification will occur as it moves up the food chain. Eventually, humans or other animals will absorb toxic chemicals into their bodies when they consume those fishes. Another way hazardous waste can enter our body is through the air we breathe; hazardous waste incineration plants that are not properly operated can cause air pollution.
Complications caused by hazardous waste on human health include diseases, infections, and irritations. Improper disposal of medical waste can cause Hepatitis B and C by infecting wounds with sharp objects, especially discarded syringes. Diseases can also be transmitted to humans by bites of animals feeding on hazardous waste, like flies transmitting intestinal infections. Chronic respiratory diseases and eye irritation can result from exposure to hazardous compounds and infected dust, especially during landfill operations. People working in waste disposal sites are also prone to chemical burns, poisoning, and other injuries due to minimal amounts of hazardous waste being mixed with general waste. Additionally, exposure to hazardous wastes can cause headaches, nausea, behavioral abnormalities, genetic mutations, physiological malfunctions, physical deformations, and birth defects. Studies have also shown that there are excess cases of cancer in residents exposed to hazardous waste. Therefore, these harmful chemicals that accumulate in the body can lead to cancers, seizures, poisoning, and death.
Hazardous wastes may affect everyone but certain people are more at risk than others. Those who are most are risk are people that come into direct contact with toxic wastes, which includes waste workers and ragpickers. Ragpickers scavenge for recyclable items in waste dumps so they can come into contact with infectious items. Thus, they are more prone to infectious and chronic diseases and injuries. Low-income people and people of color are more affected since they live in places where there are more toxic waste sites near them. People living in communities with improper waste disposal methods may have water supplies that are contaminated, which becomes disease breeding ground.
To avoid being harmed by hazardous waste, stricter regulations should be placed on hazardous waste to ensure that they get properly disposed. Since EPA is responsible for supervising toxic waste, it should fine those who violate the regulations. For example, companies should be charged when they try to avoid paying fees charged by waste facilities by dumping untreated hazardous waste on the ground or in town landfills. Individuals can also help out by carrying out proper segregation of waste so hazardous wastes don’t get mixed with other waste. Organic waste should also be separated for composting and then used as fertilizer since they decompose easily. There should be specific days where household hazardous wastes are collected. Landfills used to store hazardous waste should be completely covered to ensure no leakage to nearby groundwater sources and they should be located at a safe distance from all human settlements.
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