Want to clean up toxic waste? Look in your own utility cabinet

Dana Duxbury has no intention of becoming a movie mogul. But her latest audio-visual extravaganza is in great demand - at least in selected circles. Just don't expect to see it in your local theater.

The theme of her production is household hazardous waste - substances such as old paints and thinners, rusting cans of bug spray, or old motor oil, which clutter up the house.

Mrs. Duxbury is natural-resources director of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters, and the film is just one of the ways various organizations or states are seeking to address a perplexing problem.

Frank Walper of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation says although people blame large factories when they think of toxic waste, ''it's people that cause hazardous waste.''

The average American household is estimated to have from 3 to 10 gallons of unwanted hazardous chemicals stored in the basement, the garage, or under the kitchen sink. From house to house, these are not large amounts. But taken together, they add up quickly.

Mr. Walper says that ''there is no economically feasible way'' for people to dispose of such waste properly. Until recently, he says, the only option was to contract with a professional disposal company. For even the smallest amounts, that would easily run $1,000, he says. Too often, it is simply sent to the dump or poured down the drain.

Yet proper disposal is vital. Walper says Florida's ground water is ''very vulnerable to (contamination by) improperly disposed waste,'' because of the state's high water table, porous soil, and abundant rainfall. More than 90 percent of Florida's residents get their water from underground aquifers, he adds.

Last spring his state embarked on a three-year program to collect household hazardous waste. Two trucks canvass the state, offering residents a place to drop off their unwanted paints, sprays, and other substances for free.

The first effort, in south Florida in May and June, yielded over a quarter of a million pounds of waste from the 3,000 residents who participated. The second drive, being conducted now, has already rounded up more than that, Walper says, from a less populated region.

He says the cleanup program, called ''Amnesty Days,'' has several aims.

''Clearly, we want to collect as much waste as we can.'' Beyond that, he says , we want to make people aware of what hazardous waste is. ''They don't think, 'I've got these things on the shelf in my garage.' ''

Also, Walper says, the program aims to confront the fear many people have of hazardous waste. ''We want to lower the level of anxiety by showing that it can be handled properly.'' During May and June, he says, ''we handled 65,000 containers of hazardous waste without incident.''

The major aim of the program, however, is to show the need for facilities that regularly accept small amounts of waste, Walper says. Amnesty Days is a one-time program. The state is looking at ways to institutionalize waste-collection programs.

Under the Florida Water Quality Assurance Act, every county in the state is required to identify a potential transfer site for hazardous substances. These sites would be a step toward regular disposal of household hazardous waste.

Sites throughout the state are important, Walper says. ''The state can't continue to run around collecting hazardous waste. fter Amnesty Days, the problems will continue.''

Florida is the first state to promote disposal on a statewide basis. In other states much has been done at the grass-roots level.

The nation's first household hazardous-waste collection day was held two years ago in Lexington, Mass., and was sponsored by the local League of Women Voters. Since then, other towns and cities in Massachusetts have held more than 60 such collection days. Similar efforts have been held in about half the states.

Several private organizations are working to see that household hazardous waste is disposed of properly.

In addition to offering guidelines for holding cleanup days, Duxbury's film offers suggestions on how to minimize waste in the household. The film recommends buying smaller amounts of substances, comparing the contents of two similar products, and, in some cases, buying nonchemical alternatives to some hazardous cleaning products.

The Golden Empire Health Planning Center, an organization in California, is about to publish a handbook on the how to sponsor community household hazardous-waste cleanup drives.

Gina Purim, an environmental health planner at the center, says the book tells how to select a dropoff location, select a waste-management company, and finance and publicize an event.

The center has also designed a series of educational packages for use with schoolchildren, she says. They discuss how to identify and safely use hazardous substances, what disposal options there are, and what substitute products might be available, she says.

There are lingering problems in the disposal of household hazardous waste. For instance, says Richard Moon, technical director of GSX Chemical Services Inc., ''how do you get people to pay for something they could (formerly) do for free?''

Collection programs are costly. In most cases towns have paid for the collection drives from their municipal budgets. The Florida Amnesty Days program receives its funding from the state Legislature.

Walper says people are seeing the need to pay for proper disposal of hazardous waste. He notes that improper disposal of waste is not free - future cleanup costs are expensive.

''People are beginning to realize the benefits this can bring to the community. Given the opportunity, they'll do it.''

''Hazardous waste has been such a negative issue, people have been yearning to play some (positive) role,'' Duxbury says. ''There's a pent-up desire to do right.''

Because it occurs in such small amounts, household hazardous waste is not regulated by federal guidelines. Yet once a town holds a collection day, the accumulated amount falls under Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines.

These guidelines make the sponsoring group - often the town - liable for safety, and, potentially, for any lawsuits that result from a chemical spill.

This liability issue has not caused serious problems with the cleanup drives in the past. In some cases, the waste management company doing the actual collection has agreed to take the liability from the town. Other cleanup drives operated under an agreement with the EPA that the town would not be prosecuted if a problem developed. Geraldine Wyer of the EPA says the agency is working to clarify this liability issue.

Ms. Wyer adds that although the EPA has no authority to regulate household hazardous waste, the agency is considering its role in solving the problem. It may put together an educational program for the public, and is considering sponsoring sponsor workshops for community leaders on how to run cleanup programs, she says.

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