Reducing the use of hazardous household products
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Minimizing the use of hazardous products and properly handling those that are used can preserve water quality.
Why are hazardous household products a problem?
Many common household cleaners and home improvement products contain ingredients that are corrosive, toxic, or flammable. When used improperly or disposed of improperly, these products can become personal health and safety concerns and can also cause problems in the environment, contaminating ground water and soil and eventually reaching surface waters.
Think twice before buying household cleaning and maintenance products. General purpose products may work just as well as products developed for a specific surface or appliance. Some products may contain hazardous ingredients, such as degreasers, which contain petroleum distillates. Purchase nontoxic or less toxic products whenever possible (like water-based rather than solvent-based paints and cleaners). Alternatives to hazardous cleaning products are cheaper and some are equally effective. Do not use pesticides unless you have tried all other alternatives without success. The Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD), the MN Pollution Control Agency (PCA), and the University of Minnesota Extension can provide information on alternatives to pesticides, cleaning products, and other hazardous products.
If you must use a hazardous product, read the label carefully before purchasing. Make sure the product will do what you want it to. Buy only the amount you need, and use it up. If you can't use it up, give it to someone who can.
Read the label
Product labels contain information about product ingredients, how to store and use them safely, and hazards associated with the product. Labels on hazardous products contain SIGNAL WORDS that indicate how hazardous the product is to humans and to the environment.
POISON = highly toxic
DANGER = extremely flammable, corrosive, or highly toxic
WARNING = moderate hazard
CAUTION = mild/moderate hazard
The label will also include more specific information about the kind of hazard associated with the product, whether it is flammable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic.
Look for signal words on labels and buy products with no signal words, or with the lowest hazardous level signal word (caution or warning). Some products will indicate whether they are safe for septic systems.
Safe storage and disposal
Follow label instructions for use and storage of all household products. Do not store paints and pesticides in unheated buildings where they will freeze and become waste.
Dispose of banned or unusable products properly. Do not pour leftovers down the drain, on the ground, or into a storm sewer. Empty containers, including paint cans (lids should be left off) and aerosol cans, should be placed in the trash. Pesticide containers must be triple-rinsed before disposal. The rinse water should be used for the same purpose the pesticide was used for. The clean, empty containers can then be placed in the trash. In some areas, pesticide containers can be collected to be recycled into new pesticide containers. Hazardous product containers should not be recycled through community recycling programs.
Call your county solid waste office for information about household hazardous waste collections in your area.
Special concerns about mercury
Mercury in the environment is a serious public health issue in northern Minnesota. Many household products, including paints, batteries, thermometers, and fluorescent tubes, contain small amounts of mercury. When these products are not disposed of properly, mercury can be released into the environment. Mercury in lakes and rivers can accumulate in fish and be passed on to humans who eat them. Fish consumption advisories have been established by the MN Department of Health. Advisories have been set for certain lakes and fish species.
Product manufacturers are aware of the problems with mercury and many are modifying their products to reduce or remove it. Alkaline batteries sold in Minnesota after January 1, 1996, have no added mercury and can safely be discarded in the trash.
Here are some things you can do to reduce mercury waste:
- Look for alternatives; many mercury-free products are available and can replace mercury-containing products.
- Purchase alkaline batteries with no added mercury.
- Use rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries to reduce overall battery waste by 90%; nickel-cadmium batteries should be saved for a collection and recycling program.
- Button batteries, used in watches, cameras, and calculators, are recyclable. Return these to a retail outlet that collects them, or to a household hazardous waste collection program.
- Fluorescent tubes--contact your county solid waste officer for disposal or handling advice.
- Take paints, thermostats, mercury switches, thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, and other items containing mercury to a household hazardous waste collection program for recycling; do not throw these in the trash.
- Look before you buy items to see if they contain mercury; many products you might not suspect contain mercury (e.g., some red-light tennis shoes).
Regulations that apply
The Minnesota Legislature prohibits the placement of the following items in municipal solid waste:
- lead-acid batteries (vehicle batteries)
- waste motor oil and oil filters
- rechargeable batteries
- thermostats, thermometers, or electric switches containing mercury
Don't dump antifreeze down your drain. Contact your county solid waste office for information on proper disposal of anti-freeze.
Here's what can happen when mercury is improperly disposed of and mercury compounds enter a river or lake food chain:
- Mercury enters the river or lake.
- Mercury attaches to particles of organic material or sediment and falls to the river or lake bottom.
- Bacteria and other microorganisms consume the mercury and convert it to a fat-soluble form.
- Bacteria that contain mercury are eaten by small animals on the riverbed and the mercury enters their fatty tissues.
- Small fish eat the small animals.
- Larger fish eat the smaller fish and the mercury builds up in their tissues. The older the fish, the more mercury it contains.
- If a contaminated fish is eaten by a human, the mercury in the fish is absorbed into human fatty tissues. Although mercury will be eliminated from our bodies over time, frequent meals of contaminated fish will cause accumulation of mercury in human tissue to potentially unsafe levels. No method of cleaning or cooking fish will reduce the amount of mercury in its flesh.