When most people think of "hazardous materials," they picture trucks full of chemicals, factories, dumps oozing slime, and by-products of our synthetic society. Yet every home can be a warehouse of hazardous materials. Cleansers, bleach, oil, paints, thinners, batteries, medicines, pesticides and more common household items hold the distinction of being "hazardous. "
The average household contains between 3 and 10 gallons of materials that are classfied as hazardous. Let's look at what is considered hazardous and why.
Any material that is hazardous can eventually become a hazardous waste when discarded improperly. Hazardous materials pose a risk to people or to the environment. Proper and wise we of household hazardous materials is imperative.
There are four major classifications of hazardous materials.
Corrosive means "capable of dissolving or wearing away gradually, especially by chemical action." Corrosive hazardous materials are those that, in the wrong container, eat through the container. A simple example is putting paint thinner in a plastic cup--the cup dissolves right before your eyes!
Most items that are corrosive to containers are potentially dangerous to the skin of humans and animals. Note that the use of many cleansers require gloves to protect the skin from corrosive chemicals.
A few common corrosives include: metal cleaners with phosphoric acid; drain cleaners that contain sulfuric acid; spot rust removers with hydrofluoric acid and drain cleaners and oven cleaners containing sodium hydroxide or Iye. All of these are hazardous to the skin--they are also hazardous to the environment.
Something that poses a fire hazard during routine handling and management is considered an "ignitable" material. One of the real dangers, beyond fire and smoke, is the immediate danger of spreading harmful particles over a wide area. Common words used to describe items in this classification include "flammable" and "explosive."
Items in the home that are ignitable pose a serious threat in storage. Many of these items indicate "do not store near heat" or "keep in cool, dry place." A sample list of common household items that are ignitable includes gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel ammunition, matches, and items containing alcohol.
Reactive materials are those which, during routine management, tend to react spontaneously, to react vigorously with air or water, to be unstable to shock or heat, to generate toxic gases, or to explode. Reactive is not to be confused with "radioactive" which means "radiation emitted as a consequence of a nuclear reaction. "
Reactive processes can best be illustrated by the image of the cartoon mad scientist working feverishly in the laboratory mixing chemicals that suddenly explode or by the simple process of putting vinegar into a container with baking soda.
As with ignitable items, reactive items must be stored carefully. Some drain cleaners rely on the reactive process. They may contain sodium bisulfate which, when mixed with water, makes a weak sulfuric acid. Bleach and many scrubbing and dishwashing detergents contain chlorine bleach and if put in contact with ammonia, lye or acids will form a toxic gas (CL2).
By far the most identifiable of hazardous material signs is the skull and crossbones indicating "poison." Toxic materials are those that may release toxicants or poisons in sufficient quantities to pose a substantial hazard to human health.
Most cupboards and closets are full of toxic materials. From air fresheners to carpet deodorizers, medicines to vitamins, mothballs to oven cleaners, the potential poisons are numerous. The "toxic" quality is assumed by ingestion (swallowing), dermal intake (through the skin) or inhalation of the chemicals in a quantity sufficient to cause concentration in the body.
The materials themselves can often be used safely and can be very beneficial or necessary to the body (as in the case of some vitamins or medicines). The effects of toxics can be acute when damage is a result of a one-time exposure to relatively large amounts, and they can be chronic when damage is a result of repeated exposure to relatively low levels of a chemical.
These four classifications are not exclusive. Many hazardous materials may be in two, three or all four categories. Often, a hazardous material assumes another category when it is handled, stored or disposed of incorrectly. As an example, an acid is corrosive, can be toxic if ingested, and when it meets chlorine it is reactive. These classifications are the "primary" level of classification of the materials.
Hazardous materials must go somewhere. The container, when empty, is rarely completely empty. When the paint thinner has been used, or when the oil has been drained, it must go somewhere. All hazardous materials have the potential for becoming hazardous waste. These materials and eventual wastes are dangerous to people and animals; the dangers of explosion, fire, or reaction are constant in their storage.
Handling chemicals, acids, and toxics is dangerous. How we handle these materials today will have a tremendous impact on our environment in the future. Hazardous waste that was inappropriately discarded in the past is today's clean- up problem. It is important that we identify the chemicals we use in our homes, and that we use, store and dispose of them in a manner that is environmentally safe, not just convenient.
This fact sheet is the first in a four-part series on Household Hazardous Materials prepared by Community and Natural Resources Development and Home Economics. The others focus on the home-based issues of "Use and Storage of Hazardous Materials," "Alternatives to Hazardous Materials" and "Proper Disposal of Hazardous Materials."
All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extension are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.
Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and Director, OSU Extension.
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