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Toxic Waste

03 February, 2023


What is toxic waste? Toxic waste may be defined as discarded material that may pose a substantial threat or potential hazard to human health or the environment when improperly handled.

The above definition of toxic waste is the one most people would use. There are many wastes that are harmful to human health or the environment, but they are not toxic.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies hazardous wastes as having one or more of four characteristics:

  • Corrosive - A corrosive material can wear away (corrode) or destroy a substance. For example, most acids are corrosives that can eat through metal, burn skin on contact, and give off vapors that burn the eyes.
  • Ignitable - An ignitable material can burst into flames easily. It poses a fire hazard; can irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs; and may give off harmful vapors. Gasoline, paint, and furniture polish are ignitable.
  • Reactive - A reactive material can explode or create poisonous gas when combined with other chemicals. For example, chlorine bleach and ammonia are reactive and create a poisonous gas when they come into contact with each other.
  • Toxic - Toxic materials or substances can poison people and other life. Toxic substances can cause illness and even death if swallowed or absorbed through the skin. Pesticides, weed killers, and many household cleaners are toxic.

To simplify the identification of hazardous waste the EPA defines three types of hazardous waste:

  1. Universal Waste (batteries, pesticides, mercury containing items)
  2. Characteristic Waste (has the properties characteristic of hazardous waste)
  3. Listed Waste (waste streams classified as hazardous based on their source)

For more information about the types of hazardous waste, view our infographic on Hazardous Management Waste or grab our complimentary Hazardous Waste Management Guide.

Hundreds of hazardous wastes are in the "Listed Waste" category, and the majority of those are in the toxic waste category. To decide if a waste is a toxic waste, the EPA first determines whether it typically contains harmful chemical constituents. If so, then 11 other factors are evaluated to determine if the waste stream could be a substantial health or environmental hazard "when improperly treated, stored, transported, or disposed of, or otherwise managed."  (40 CFR 261.11(a)(3)).

Where Does Toxic Waste Come From?

The by-products of many of the products we use every day can result in the production of toxic waste. For example, common materials such as paints, batteries, pesticides, and solvents create toxic wastes during their manufacture or when these products are thrown out. We could eliminate toxic wastes by not using products such as paint, compact florescent light bulbs, and batteries, but that is not practical. That means we must properly manage the toxic waste resulting from the manufacture and disposal of these products.

How are Humans Exposed to Toxic Waste?

For a toxic waste to affect humans, or the environment, it must be released into the air, water, or onto the ground. Once released it can spread, contaminating more of the environment and creating threats to human health over a wider area. Even when toxic waste is being managed it can unknowingly spread. For example, when rain falls on a waste storage site, if the site is not properly designed the rainwater can carry the toxic waste into the underlying groundwater. If only a small amount of the toxic substances gets into the groundwater, it may be diluted to the point where it is no longer toxic. There is only a hazard to life if:

  • A large amount of toxic waste is released at one time
  • A small amount is released many times at the same place
  • The toxic substance does not become diluted
  • The substance is highly toxic (arsenic, for example). 

Toxic Waste and the Importance of Dose and Exposure

Dose and exposure are two important words when talking about toxic waste. For example, exposure to extremely low doses of a highly toxic waste may be safe and result in no harm. However, very high doses of a non-toxic substance, such as water, can result in death. (Drinking too much water can result in over-hydration and death.)

Coming into contact with a substance is called exposure. The effects of an exposure depend on:

  • How the exposure occurred. For example,
    • Through inhalation, meaning breathing in vapors resulting from toxic wastes. Even taking a shower in contaminated water can result in inhalation of toxic vapors.
    • Through ingestion. Ingestion typically results from eating food that has been contaminated by exposure to toxic waste. However, there is also a serious risk of small children eating or drinking toxic materials such as household chemicals (cleaning solvents and soaps, for example), soil, or paint chips.
    • Through contact. This is called "dermal exposure" and involves direct contact with toxic waste that can be absorbed through the skin.
    • Through a puncture or an open wound. Our skin provides a barrier to many substances. When that barrier is broken, it is much easier for harmful substances to enter our body.
  • The characteristics of the toxic waste.
  • The concentration or "dose" of the exposure.
  • The duration of the exposure.
  • The frequency of the exposure.

Plants, animals, fish, and birds can be exposed to toxic waste in the same way as humans. Just as in humans, the effects of exposure will vary based on the above factors.

Acute and Chronic Toxic Waste Exposure

Exposure to toxic materials can be classified as either acute or chronic.

An acute exposure is a single, short duration exposure to a hazardous substance. The health effects of the exposure typically appear immediately after exposure. For example, when a fly is sprayed with bug spray, it immediately dies. Or when your hand is splashed with battery acid, you will immediately have a burn from the acid.

A chronic exposure is typically a small exposure that is repeated over a long period of time. The health effects of a chronic exposure are not immediately seen. They typically will be a long-term illness, cancer, liver failure, or slowed growth or development in children. An example of a chronic exposure would be people living near a leaking hazardous waste dump. The effects of the leaking toxic waste might not appear for years, or even decades.

One reason for chronic exposure being so dangerous is that some substance can accumulate in the body. This is called bioaccumulation. The result is that even very low dose exposures can result in a toxic substance accumulating over time in the body. Instead of passing through the body and being excreted, these substances increase in concentration within the body causing long-term harm.

Toxic Waste Warning Labels

If people are aware of the danger, they can avoid it or protect themselves. That's why using highly visible warning labels is important. For example, toxic waste is often stored in 55 gallon drums. These drums would typically be labeled with common 4" x 6" labels. However, with DuraLabel high visibility, extra large 6.8" x 10.5" labels can be used to make the warning prominent.

DuraLabel custom label printers and tough-tested supplies don't impose limits ? they let you label toxic waste so that the labels are easily noticed. Whether you need warning signs, large format labels, or any other type of warning or danger label, with a DuraLabel printer you can get the job done right.

Learn the ins-and-outs of hazardous waste handling with our free Industrial Hazardous Waste Management Guide which provides expert advice to handle toxic waste with care. Get your free copy below.