Earth Matters: Despite some gains, toxic chemical problems still exist

The world of hazardous chemicals and poisons has changed profoundly in the last dozen years or so.

Like human substance abuse problems, recognizing that there is a problem is the first step in addressing them. Some of these lessons, unfortunately, have been hard ones to learn, too frequently causing serious health problems or fatalities.

While Rachel Carson’s legendary book “Silent Spring” initially raised concerns about pesticides in the ’60s, several notable disasters brought toxic chemicals into the headlines in the ’70s and ’80s. One notable incident was the poisoning of the Niagara Falls neighborhood, Love Canal.

Even here in Blair County, chemical dumps left by the railroad were uncovered at Altoona’s Easterly Sewage Treatment Plant and at the Sam Rea Shops in Hollidaysburg.

These and other chemical exposures and related health problems prompted the passage of both federal and state laws regulating them. Their manufacturing, use and disposal became stringently regulated, and the most toxic were outlawed all together.

Much good has come from these regulations, and industry has handled these materials more carefully, while decreasing production of many of them. Less toxic alternatives have been developed in further response to these restrictions and concerns from the public.

The move toward VOC-free paint is a perfect example.

Yet despite these laws and many sad stories that preceded them, toxic chemical problems persist even today. Poorer communities and neighborhoods are especially vulnerable, since it is easier to site a facility in such places.

Another set of problems collectively occur every day. Misused or overused bug killers in the home, poisoned farm workers, homeowners spreading weed control chemicals right up to the wellhead, exposure to oil-based paint vapors and accidental lead and mercury poisoning occur with alarming frequency every day.

Looking for alternatives to these chemicals and products is the easiest way to address the problem. But we also have many more opportunities to get rid of what we do find in our homes and workplaces. Many counties in Pennsylvania now sponsor Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) collections. Blair County’s is next weekend, July 12, at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

Rather than being a place to take such products for disposal, these collections now have a strong recycling component. Motor oil and other petrochemicals are burned for energy. Mercury is recovered from thermostats and fluorescent bulbs. Precious and toxic metals are recycled from computers and other electronics. Lead is recovered from cathode ray tube televisions and computer monitors. Antifreeze and solvents are often recycled into new products.

HHW collections are still very expensive, and it’s important that you bring only hazardous materials to such events. Once latex paint is dried out, it is no longer hazardous, so latex paint is not accepted at our HHW collection. (The recycling office has a fact sheet explaining how to dry out latex paint.) Computers, televisions and other electronics will not be accepted next Saturday either, since they can be recycled throughout the year at the Buckhorn Recycling Facility. Non-toxic cleaners and many typical household products in aerosol cans are not hazardous either. When in doubt, look for the hazardous warning on the box or side of the can.

This year’s Household Hazardous Waste collection is next Saturday, July 12, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Altoona Curve’s Peoples Natural Gas Field VIP parking lot. Visit for a complete list of acceptable materials.