Tag Archives: toxic

The Toxic Animas River

You’ve seen the orange yellow water. It’s diluted downstream. But do you know what toxins were actually released in the Animas River? What are the hazards of this contamination? Here’s a look at the Toxic Animas River.

Although the metals will dilute downstream, they are heavy metals. That means much of it has settled on the bottom of the river and/or attached to organic matter. That’s good. The settled metals will be covered over by more river sediment, which reduces exposure. That’s bad. They’re still in there, exposed to the water and can be kicked up. Continue reading

Berkeley Pit Superfund Site, Butte, MT

Panoramic view of the toxic, corrosive pool from the viewing platform.

Panoramic view of the toxic, corrosive pool from the viewing platform.

There are Superfund Sites. Then there are SUPERFUND SITES! The Berkeley Pit in Butte, MT is the latter. A former open pit copper mine, it is now a 900 foot deep collection pool of eerily gorgeous water. That water is contaminated with heavy metals, copper, cadmium, cobalt, iron, manganese, zinc, arsenic, and has a pH of 2.5 (acidic). And it’s open for tours. How about that? You can take a tour of a Superfund Site.

The most interesting part of this site is that since it closed on Earth Day 1982, the pit is slowly collecting more water. That is a problem. There is a critical level, 5,410 feet above sea level, when the water will be near the natural water table. At that time they will begin pumping the water out of the pit. If they don’t, the toxic, corrosive water will outflow back into the groundwater and surrounding surface water. As of Oct 1, 2014, the water level has grown 6.17 feet in 2014 to 5,319.78 feet. It is estimated that the water will reach the critical level in 2023. That’s not that far. Continue reading

Toxic Cooking Spray

Toxic cooking spray

Common cooking spray ingredients. Yum, propellant!

Look at the ingredients in your common cooking spray. This is in the last one I used – oil, lecithin, natural flavors, dimethyl silicon and propellant. After the oil, I have concerns about using the other ingredients. That is why this is the last time I’ll be using a toxic cooking spray.

The most intriguing ingredient to me is “propellant.” I work with hazardous materials and wastes and have dealt with enough chemicals that contain propellants. I have an idea what to expect and the two words that immediately come to mind are, flammable and toxic. And I’m putting this on my eggs each morning. What was I thinking?

Continue reading

Joseph von Fraunhofer’s Toxic Death, Highlighted on Cosmos

 Did you see episode 5 of Cosmos and the story of Joseph von Fraunhofer? First, why not? Cosmos is an awesome show! This episode highlights von Fraunhofer’s life – his early life as an orphan working as a mirror and glass maker and his discoveries that further enhanced our global scientific knowledge. Cosmos mentioned how he died young, age 39, potentially from being exposed to the toxic glassmaking conditions. This caught my attention. Who am I kidding? Cosmos is so good that everything in it catches my attention.

I don’t have the experience in glass making to know what the conditions were like for someone making mirrors in the late 1700’s. But I can be certain that there wasn’t any OSHA to enforce wearing of respirators and other personal protective equipment (PPE); no EPA to regulate the emissions and management of wastes; no NIOSH, no TLVs to be concerned with, and certainly no Hazardous Materials Managers.

The toxic heavy metals used in mirror making over the course of history have included copper, bronze, sliver, gold, lead, and mercury. I don’t know exactly what toxins young von Fraunhofer was inhaling. A mirror making historian might know, but I don’t know any mirror making historians. Due to the time, it was probably a combination of silver, lead and/or mercury. All poisonous heavy metals.

Beyond being poisonous, when we get heavy metals in our bodies, they don’t leave our bodies easily. They don’t pass through (or come back up). They get into your bloodstream and cause damage throughout.

Some of the biographies note that he died from tuberculoss, which is a lung disease. Whether it was tuberculosis enhanced from the toxins, or just lung disease from the toxin inhalation, it’s a pretty convincing argument that the mirror making chemicals did some damage. If only Joe had attended a HAZCOM, safety, or other hazardous material training course to learn about his potential exposures, maybe our scientfic knowledge of light and lenses would be even further enhanced today.


Seeing the World Through Environmental Tinted Eyes

air pollution

Pollution from a sugar factory. Yes, a sugar factory

Seeing through the world through the eyes of an environmental professional is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it gives me an appreciate for the natural world and allows me to see and understand the improvements in our environment. The curse is that I can’t miss the environmental pollutants and potential damage in nearly everything.

Control of air quality, management and releases of hazardous chemicals, and other important environmental areas have seen great improvements. But the amount of chemicals in our daily life seems to be increasing and our exposure to them is often unknown. I can’t stop thinking about constant exposure to environmental pollutants, both mine and the people I see being exposed. At work, it’s the exposure to hazardous materials for both me and my coworkers. At home, it’s the countless man-made chemicals in our food and products.

I see coworkers who are exposed to hazardous chemicals on a daily basis and I try to educate them on the effects of exposure. I gas up my car, get a quick whiff of the fuel vapors, and immediately think about what that exposure is doing to me and everyone else. I’ll drive past a construction site and think about the pollutants in the dust being kicked up. I’ll see someone applying a pesticide without any PPE and wonder about their exposure. Although our overall air quality control has improved, I see pollution from refineries and factories and worry about spending too much time around them.

air pollution rocky mountains

Air pollution over the Rocky Mountains

As a recreational triathlete, albeit a slow one, I think about the environment where I’m training. I enjoy open water swimming, but wonder what pollutants are in the water? It could be a beautiful lake and maybe the only nasty thing in it is too much goose poop, but a lake in an urban setting could be filled with stormwater runoff chemicals – fertilizers, pesticides, oils and greases. You probably shouldn’t swim in an urban lake the day after a big storm. This fall I ran a half-marathon through downtown Denver and was thankful that the race was on a Sunday morning. I couldn’t imagine running 13.1 miles through the city on a busy weekday and question people who do or worse, run along a busy road during rush hour.

In my house, I’ll wear my shoes inside and wonder what was on the bottom of them that I just carried through (pesticides, grease from the street). Should I be using this household cleaner? Am I being exposed to the fire-retardant chemicals in my couch or the pesticides I applied to get rid of the ants? Most likely, yes. I bought Halloween makeup to apply a mustache for my son’s costume, Einstein. I read the ingredients, thought better of it and he went as Lil Einstein – no mustache.

One area where some progress is being made to reduce our exposure to small amounts of toxic, man-made chemicals is in our food. Although agribusiness is bigger than ever, finding options for healthier, naturally grown food is becoming more widespread.

Paracelsus said, “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” I enjoy seeing the world through my environmental-tinted eyes and use that understanding to balance being environmentally conscious, being realistic, and taking calculated risks. Ignorance is not bliss, so I wear my PPE.

pest control spraying

What is this guy being exposed to?

Why is Lead 5.0 mg/l?

Lead at 8.3 mg/l.

Lead at 8.3 mg/l.

Why is the EPA hazardous waste characteristic concentration for lead 5 mg/l or greater?

Lead is a poisonous metal and exposure to it, mainly through ingestion or inhalation, can do a long list of harm to your body – nervous system, brain, kidneys, weakness, reduced cognitive ability, and more. There’s decades of research and evidence about the toxicity of lead. That is why the EPA has determined that wastes containing a certain amount of lead are considered hazardous waste.

Let’s hear it directly from the EPA: If lead in the leaching solution is present at a concentration greater than or equal to 5 mg/l (or parts-per-million – ppm), the waste would be considered to be hazardous, and would be required to be managed as a hazardous waste.

But why 5 mg/l? Why not 100 mg/l, which is the level for barium? Why not 1 mg/l, which is cadmium? How did the EPA determine that 5 mg/l is the threshold level? That less than that leaching out of product in a landfill is not as hazardous? I could ask the same about the levels of any of the hazardous waste toxins, but lead is the one I think about.

The answer has to do with ingestion of lead from drinking water derived from groundwater or surface water sources. The maximum contaminant level (MCL) for lead in our drinking water is 50 ug/l. To determine the level for hazardous wastes, the MCL is multiplied by a 100-fold dilution attenuation factor to come up with the level of 5 mg/l. Apparently in some cases dilution is the solution to pollution.

It’s not the prettiest answer, but it is a technical question, which don’t usually have pretty answers. The summary answer is that lead is poisonous and the EPA has to set a limit that is “safe”. They have determined a level that protects the public based on history of lead poisoning, the science of the breakdown of lead, our consumption of contaminated water, and most certainly the review by policymakers and industry.

The best part is that we have identified a toxic threat to our health, taken steps to reduce our exposure, and we are a healthier, happier, and safer society due to the drastic reduction of lead. Read this for great article about how reducing lead in our environment has reduced crime.