10.4 Environmental Health

When we think about hazard and risk it is normal to immediately think of personal risk, e.g. Safety. However the environment is also affected by our activities, and can be unnecessarily put at risk by carelessness. As we consider risk controls we can also think about environmental risk.

One special consideration for environmental risk is proper disposal of hazardous materials. Making decisions about disposal is not simple, but general guidelines can still be useful:

  • Treat everything as a hazardous material unless you know its effects.
  • Know the fate of materials that go into the solid waste (“trash”), the public sewer, and into hazardous waste storage. Many materials put into the public sewer are reintroduced into the environment.
  • Avoid mixing wastes if possible.
  • Adhere to local and state regulations and ask before disposal if you don’t know what to do.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and similar state institutions such as the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) govern waste handling and disposal. Laws are complex and evolving, but in general hazardous chemical wastes must be sorted, stored safely, and transported with great care to suitable disposal sites.

Many materials that are wastes in a laboratory can undergo operations to recover them for additional use. Others can be used safety as fuels, producing heat and electricity as they are combusted. Those that can not be put through these recycling or repurposing processes are usually placed in special hazardous waste landfills.

Responsible waste handling remains the responsibility of a waste generator in perpetuity. This law motivates waste producers to minimize the amount of waste they produce and to avoid unnecessarily hazardous wastes. Waste handling and disposal is also costly, which provides an additional incentive for businesses to be thoughtful about what, and how much waste they produce.

It is easy to judge waste producers, but we all contribute indirectly to the production of hazardous wastes. The materials we buy and consume come from the earth, and are transformed into useful substances through waste-producing processes. Some processes are certainly unnecessary and harmful, and should be curtailed or banned. But others are not easily avoided.

It is in our shared interest to be aware of and attentive to matters of waste production throughout the life cycle of the materials we use, and to produce as little waste as possible.


Where do chemicals end up when

  • They are flushed down the drain?
  • They are put into a trash can?
  • They are put into a special waste jar?
  • They are released to evaporate in the hood?



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Introductory Organic Chemistry Copyright © 2021 by Carol Higginbotham is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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