A few months ago, a woman phoned the Household Products Disposal Council in Washington, D.C. She had changed her brand of hair spray and wanted to know how she should dispose of a half-empty can of spray she no longer used. She understood that aerosol cans should not be disposed of in conventional garbage. She was right. Cans under pressure are not welcome in the waste stream, whether destined for landfills or the incinerator.
The solution, in this case, was relatively simple: Empty the can by spraying the contents into the air until there was none left, then wrap it in newspaper to absorb any remaining liquid and place it in the garbage.
``Spray it all into the air!'' she exclaimed. ``But what about air pollution?''
``But isn't that exactly what you are doing every time you spray your hair?'' was the response.
A similar reaction came from the man who had some almost-empty cans of paint in his cellar. If he couldn't give the paint away to a neighbor, he was told, he should leave the can with the lid off and let it dry out before wrapping it in paper and sending it to the dump.
He, too, voiced concern for air quality, yet paint that dries in the can adds no more to pollution than paint that dries on the wall. And a dry waste is less of a threat to ground water than a liquid waste.
Gary S. Moore, chairman of the environmental science program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, tells these stories to point out the confused thinking that currently centers on household chemicals and their correct disposal.
The public is concerned, and rightly so, in Dr. Moore's opinion, about pollution. Too many problems stemming from carelessly disposed wastes have surfaced in recent years for people to be sanguine about household chemicals anymore. But if caring concern serves the public interest, exaggerated fear does not, Moore believes.
The perception has grown in recent years that household chemicals amount to hazardous waste, and this concerns Moore. A hazardous waste, he points out, is one that threatens injury because of its ability to explode, burst into flame, or be corrosive or toxic.
Most household chemicals do not fall into that group. Those that do (some paints can burn, for example) are disposed of in small quantities and can readily be made safe by allowing them to dry.
What concerns Moore is that public fear of contamination might cause all household chemicals to be classified as hazardous waste. If that happened, disposal costs would increase to $3 a pound, or $6,000 a ton. These costs would prove so overwhelming to many people that individuals, and perhaps even whole communities, would illegally dump the wastes in the soil or into storm water drains, with vastly more damaging effect on the environment.
``The environmental risk is not from disposal of household chemicals, but from the overwhelming preponderance of industrial, commercial, and domestic refuse placed in unlined landfills without leachate traps,'' says Moore.
In his view, by upgrading the landfill facilities the problem will steadily be resolved. ``Private citizens groups and industry can do much to encourage this process,'' he says.
Auto oil is at present the most environmentally damaging waste generated in homes in the United States because so many people dump it illegally in the soil or down drains.
``Studies show we pour 5 million quarts [of oil] away illegally in Massachusetts alone!'' Moore notes. ``And one quart of oil improperly disposed [of] can pollute thousands of gallons of water.'' The marshlands are particularly vulnerable, he says.
He does suggest that voluntary collection days for those materials that may pose environmental hazards - old pesticides, used motor oil, old gasoline and kerosene, some solvents, and paint products, plus ammunition and photo hobby chemicals - would be beneficial. Here again, citizen groups can lobby for such collection days.
Meanwhile there are practical steps, a list of Dos and Don'ts, that homeowners should be aware of when dealing with household chemicals. DO:
Use up any product that you buy. If you can't, give it to someone who can. Make sure that any product you give away is in its original container with label intact and any use and disposal instructions included. Give leftover paint to a local community or theater group; donate leftover pesticides to a local garden club, etc. Small amounts of paint can be left to dry in the can.
Take used or contaminated motor oil, transmission fluid, kerosene, and diesel fuel to an automotive service center, oil recycling station, or authorized collection site. Turn in your old car battery.
Dispose of a container once it is empty. Follow label instructions about rinsing the container or wrapping it in newspaper. Before disposing of them, always wrap in newspaper cans that contained materials that could harm the skin.
Empty all aerosal cans by depressing the button until no more product comes out before wrapping the container in newspaper and disposing of it with the trash. Never throw empty aerosal containers into an incinerator or trash compactor.
Follow all label directions.
Call your local enviromental or public health agency with questions about any material you think may pose a disposal problem.
Contact your local government agency to find out what kind of disposal systems your community has and whether there are any materials that should not go through normal municipal disposal.
Dispose of any liquids by pouring them into your backyard or into a storm sewer.
Bury any containers, full or empty, in your yard.
Attempt to use a backyard fireplace or barbecue as an incinerator.
Dispose of anything by the side of the road.
Remove product labels.
Remove products from their original containers for storage or future use.
Refill empty containers, even with the same material, unless the label recommends it.
For further information, contact Carol Lippincott at the Household Products Disposal Council, 1625 Eye St., NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC 20006. Tel. (202) 659-5535.