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Hazardous Wastes

Protection From Hazardous Wastes

Beginning in the 1970s, a number of highly-publicized hazardous waste crises and advances in environmental science led the American people and public health authorities to recognize hazardous wastes as a significant threat to health and the environment. Today, there is a public and political debate between those who believe that public perception of waste hazards is worse than the actual danger, and that adequate safeguards exist to protect people from significant exposures, and those who insist that government and industry need to do a better job of managing hazardous wastes, considering the harm that can be caused by these chemicals.

The case of chemical dumping by the Hooker Chemical Company at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York was a catalyst that dramatically increased public concern over hazardous wastes. The Love Canal community was built at the turn of the twentieth century as a residential subdivision centered on a small hydro-power canal. The original developer never completed the canal, and the Hooker Company used the half-finished ditch as a dump for more than 20,000 tons of chemical wastes during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1953, the Hooker Company covered the dumpsite with soil and sold it to the town of Love Canal for a dollar. By 1976, residents and scientists had linked a series of public health problems including birth defects and childhood leukemia to teratogenic (birth defect-causing) and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) liquids, sludge, and gases visually seeping from the dumpsite.

The media reported extensively on the problems at Love Canal. The resulting wave of public outrage at television pictures of black sludge seeping from the ground, and children suffering from cancer, triggered a political response. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a federal disaster area. Two years later, the U.S. Congress passed "Superfund" legislation, which established a national cleanup program for hazardous waste sites.

A hazardous waste dump site. The barrels are filled with chemical wastes. Photograph by Nancy J. Pierce. Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

Activist groups such as Greenpeace and the Citi zen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes seek to increase public awareness of hazardous waste issues. Such groups frequently oppose government and industry policies and projects related to hazardous wastes. One outgrowth of the publicity surrounding hazardous waste is that it has become difficult to find locations for new treatment facilities because of local opposition. This is called the NIMBY, or "not in my backyard" syndrome. Civil rights groups in the United States have also called attention to the unequal distribution of hazardous waste dumpsites and handling facilities in poor and minoritydominated communities. Studies have shown that a disproportionately large fraction of African Americans and Hispanic Americans—three out of five—live in communities with hazardous waste sites.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Habit memory: to HeterodontHazardous Wastes - Sources Of Hazardous Wastes, Protection From Hazardous Wastes, Government Management Strategies, Treatment And Disposal Technologies