Knowing which waste is which, In Our Back Yard
What's the Difference Between Hazardous Wastes and Universal Wastes?
You have probably heard the term "hazardous waste". Most people know this as the type of waste they definitely do NOT want to be around, the type of waste that is dangerous to handle without proper safety equipment (like safety glasses and chemical resistant gloves) and dangerous to store without taking special precautions in the storage area. Hazardous wastes have been regulated and managed for years, but now there is a term just as common as the term hazardous waste. This classification of waste is called "universal waste".
What is Universal Waste?
Universal wastes are CRTs - cathode ray tubes (computer monitors, TVs), fluorescent light bulbs, also called fluorescent lamps, mercury-containing thermostats, certain batteries, lighting ballasts (transformers) that contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury devices, such as mercury thermometers, mercury containing barometers, mercury containing switches from appliances (sump pumps, for example), and motor vehicle mercury switches.
It may surprise you to learn that universal wastes are hazardous. They are just one of several types of hazardous waste. Although you use the items listed above without any special, protective equipment, and it is perfectly safe to handle thermometers and fluorescent lamps that are not broken, all these items contain hazardous chemicals that can harm human health and the environment. These items, when not disposed of properly, can pollute the environment the same way the traditional, famous, "icky" hazardous wastes, like those containing dioxin and arsenic, can.
Universal wastes are different from regular hazardous wastes because they are, as the name implies, universal. They are everywhere! Until recently, many viewed these products as items that could be thrown in the trash. Recent research has shown that this is not a good idea, especially when it comes to mercury.
What Harm Can Universal Wastes Do?
The most common hazardous chemical contained in universal wastes is mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin. It slows fetal and child development and impairs brain function. High exposure can cause tremors, numbness of fingers and toes, loss of muscle control, memory loss, and kidney disease. Mercury enters the human body primarily by eating fish. Recent studies of fish and loons (which eat fish) in Maine have shown mercury to be much more widespread and at higher levels of concentration than previously thought. So, lots of work must be done to reduce the levels of mercury in Maine's environment.
What Can You Do?
The most important thing you can do to keep the hazardous chemicals inside the universal waste is to remove fluorescent lamps, thermometers, thermostats, etc. from your household trash. Keep them separate and take them to a place that accepts and separates universal wastes from regular trash. Many towns are doing this now. Contact your town office to see if your town is separating universal waste. You can contact the Maine Department of Environmental Protection at 287-2651 or visit www.maineDEP.com
This column was submitted by Peter Moulton, an environmental engineer with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management. In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the DEP. E-mail your questions to infoDEP@maine.gov