The safe disposal of toxic waste has become a global challenge. Each year, world nations produce 440 million tons of toxic waste. This is a highly conservative estimate, given the clandestine nature of the enterprise and fluid definitions of what constitutes hazardous or toxic waste (the terms are used interchangeably). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines hazardous waste as “a waste with properties that make it dangerous or potentially harmful to human health or the environment” (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2006). Hazardous waste can be liquids, solids, contained gases, sludge, byproducts of manufacturing processes, or simply discarded commercial products, like cleaning fluids or pesticides.
An international trade has arisen to transfer toxic waste from developed to developing nations. The United Kingdom exported spent mercury to South Africa throughout the 1990s, which claimed at least three lives at a mercury recycling plant, where mercury is removed from waste sludge for reuse. Similarly, the U.S. chemical firm Holtrachem Manufacturing attempted to export 260,000 pounds of spent mercury waste from its U.S. plant in Maine to India in September 2000. The U.S. government defined the spent mercury as a metal with trade value and exempted it from regulations on waste exports. Pressured by environmental advocacy groups, the Indian government refused the shipment and returned it to the United States.
Some leaders of global financial institutions have offered economic rationale for trade in toxic waste between developed and developing countries. On December 12, 1991, Lawrence Summers, who served as chief economist at the World Bank, wrote an internal memo that stated the World Bank should “be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs,” referring to less developed countries (Vallette 1999). His argument was threefold: First, “a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages.” Second, as “under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City.” Third, “the concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate [sic] cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is 200 per thousand” (Vallette 1999). After the memo became public in February 1992, Brazil’s secretary of the environment, José Lutzenberger, wrote to Summers: “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane” (Vallette 1999). Lutzenberger was forced from office shortly afterward.
As indicated in Summers’s memo, according to the Trade and Environment Database,
poor African nations have served as the dumping ground for toxic hazardous waste materials, i.e. raw sewage, sludge, incinerated ashes, contaminated oils, chemical substances, acids, poisonous solvents ejected by chemical, pharmaceutical and fertilizer producing plants in the industrialized world. … Uncontrolled dumping of toxic wastes in Africa has been traced back to the early 1970s, when reports of clandestine deals between African countries and companies in the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Italy, and the former U.S.S.R. began surfacing (Trade and Environment Database 1996).
The worst victims of this waste shipment have been the African nations of Benin, Nigeria, and Somalia, which became a tempting target for cost-conscious waste traders. On average, the cost of processing toxic waste is as high as $3,000 per ton in industrialized countries, whereas it drops to $5 per ton in developing countries, according to the Trade and Environment Database. In 1987 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) adopted the Cairo Guidelines and Principles for the Environmentally Sound Management of Hazardous Waste, which require toxic-waste exporters to ensure that disposal sites in waste-importing countries meet the safety requirements of national and international regulations.
BASEL CONVENTION AND BASEL BAN AMENDMENT
Two years after the UNEP adopted the Cairo Guidelines, the leaders of 118 governments met in the Swiss town of Basel in 1989 and signed the first-ever global treaty regarding toxic waste, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. As of November 2006, more than 165 countries had ratified it to become international law. The Basel Convention was resented by waste-exporting industries and world governments, however, and they tried to cripple its enforcement. To prevent such efforts, the Basel Convention was amended to ban the trade in toxic waste with immediate effect. In all, 83 countries signed on to the 1995 amendment to the Basel Convention, which is now known as the Basel Ban Amendment. This amendment criminalizes all toxic-waste exports from member nations of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to non-OECD countries, even for recycling. According to the Basel Action Network, more than 90 percent of toxicwaste exports from OECD to non-OECD countries were meant for recycling.
Interestingly, the United States, which is the single largest producer of toxic waste, has ratified neither the Basel Convention nor the Basel Ban Amendment. The country’s refusal rests on the argument that U.S. laws effectively regulate toxic-waste exports. It is true that the United States has one of the toughest legal regimes to protect the environment, including the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or Superfund Act, of 1986. These legal regimes, however, ensure safe disposal of toxic waste only within the United States, and their impact is diluted in regulating waste exports outside the country.
Even the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban Amendment are marred by several loopholes that allow the toxic-waste trade to continue. Some nations try to circumvent the ban on toxic-waste exports by resorting to bilateral agreements, which they argue fall outside the purview of the Basel Ban Amendment. Japan, which is the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, signed bilateral economic partnership agreements (EPAs) in the early 2000s with Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines to evade the ban on toxic-waste exports. These EPAs list hazardous wastes as tariff barriers, which Japan believes need be eliminated. Japan is also using free trade agreements to promote free trade in hazardous wastes. Similarly, some governments and industries attempt to nullify the banned designations of toxic wastes under the Basel Convention under one pretext or another, or define them down to continue toxic-waste exporting. The ultimate enforcers, however, are individual governments that allow waste imports. They can defeat international legislation on toxic-waste trade by being lax in the enforcement of the Basel Ban Amendment for short-term economic gains. A vigorous civic engagement by national and international public interest groups is, therefore, crucial to hold the governments of waste-importing countries to their commitments to halt trade in toxic waste. More important, clean production, minimum waste generation, and waste management within the national limits of waste-producing countries can bring an end to the global trade in toxic waste.
SEE ALSO Disease; Environmental Kuznets Curves; Love Canal; Public Health; Resources; World Bank, The
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Toxic substances, such as heavy metals and organic solvents, are often present in the waste stream produced by human activities. The chemical, petroleum, and mining industries are the most likely industries to produce toxic wastes, but they are also generated by domestic users, hospitals, and dry cleaners. Toxic waste can contaminate groundwater and possibly enter drinking water or the food chain.
Toxins have many different adverse effects on the body, from acute poisoning to the slow accumulation of cell defects over many years, which can lead to cancer. Environmental legislation has been enacted following instances of toxic waste harming human health, such as the famous incident at Love Canal in the 1970s. Those producing or handling toxic waste are now required to prevent its entering the public domain. But there are still many sites needing to be cleaned of toxic waste, and problems with generating, storing, and exporting it to developing countries.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
People often use the term toxic waste and hazardous waste interchangeably. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines toxic waste as a type of hazardous waste, which is a material dangerous or potentially harmful to human health or the environment. The other types of hazardous waste are flammable, corrosive, or reactive waste. A toxic waste contains components that poison body cells or tissues, thereby producing adverse effects on health.
The petrochemical, chemical, metal, and mining industries produce most toxic wastes, but homes produce some too—garden pesticides and cleaning material are an important source. Toxic wastes can be present in the form of a solid, liquid, or gas and they may enter air, water, or soil. There are, therefore, a variety of ways in which humans can be exposed and a wide range of toxins. The United States Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry lists arsenic, lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as the most hazardous toxic wastes.
Impacts and Issues
The Industrial Revolution and the growth of the chemical industry brought many toxins into everyday use, long before medical research revealed their potential for harm to the cells of the body. Toxins often cause mutations in cells that can lead to birth defects, miscarriage, and cancer. Cancer may show up only many years after exposure. Chemicals found in toiletries, pesticides, and many other everyday products are now known to mimic the effect of the female hormone estrogen. Recent research has shown that these environmental estrogens cause developmental abnormalities in fish and may be linked to infertility and other human health problems.
The potential of toxic waste to harm was highlighted in events at Love Canal, Niagara Falls, New York, in the 1970s. In the 1920s, this area had been a landfill site for industrial chemicals. In the 1950s, around 100 homes and a school were built on the land. Twenty-five years later, the New York Times reported how the waste containers had rotted, allowing toxic waste to leach into the backyards of these homes. A higher than expected incidence of birth defects and miscarriages was noted in the local population, and many had higher than expected white cell counts, a possible precursor of leukemia. In the end, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency and had the residents evacuated.
The Love Canal incident led to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund Act, in 1980. This legislation deals with the treatment and liability for these contaminated sites, the most seriously polluted of which are designated as Superfund sites.
Toxic waste continues to pose problems, but these are more likely to occur in developing nations that do not yet have tough environmental legislation. They may also be the recipients of toxic wastes from elsewhere. These exports continue, albeit illegally since a ban in 1989. In 2006, ten people died and thousands were made ill after exposure to petroleum waste exported to the Ivory Coast. In 2007, the Mattel toy company recalled almost two million toys from stores in the United States that were contaminated with lead-based paint; the source of the paint was traced to factories in China. China has also been accused of exporting toxic waste intended for use as components in fertilizer; Australian officials seized shipments of raw materials shipped from China and meant for fertilizers containing dangerously high levels of cadmium in 2003. Inside China, recent discharges of toxic waste into the Beijiang, Songhua, and Sungari Rivers all resulted in environmental emergencies that required the suspension of local water supplies.
WORDS TO KNOW
ENVIRONMENTAL ESTROGEN: Compounds in toxic waste that mimic estrogen in their effect on humans and other animals.
SUPERFUND: Legislation that authorizes funds to clean up abandoned, contaminated sites.
TOXIN: A substance which is harmful to the body.
Cunningham, W.P., and A. Cunningham. Environmental Science: A Global Concern. New York: McGraw-Hill International Edition, 2008.
U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. “2007 CERCLA Priority List of Hazardous Substances.” http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/cercla/071ist.html (accessed July 10, 2008).
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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “The Love Canal Tragedy: EPA History.” January 1979. http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/lovecanal/01.htm (accessed March 17, 2008).
toxic waste is waste material, often in chemical form, that can cause death or injury to living creatures. It usually is the product of industry or commerce, but comes also from residential use, agriculture, the military, medical facilities, radioactive sources, and light industry, such as dry cleaning establishments. The term is often used interchangeably with "hazardous waste," or discarded material that can pose a long-term risk to health or environment. Toxics can be released into air, water, or land. In 1976 the Toxic Substances Control Act required the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate potentially hazardous industrial chemicals, including halogenated fluorocarbons, dioxin, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and vinyl chloride. Other federal legislation pertaining to hazardous wastes includes the Atomic Energy Act (1954), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or Superfund Act (1986). Toxic waste treatment and control has proved to be expensive and time-consuming with more resources spent on court battles than on actual cleanup. The disposal of toxic wastes is also a topic of international concern. In 1989, some 50 countries signed a treaty aimed at regulating the international shipment of toxic wastes. In some cases such wastes are shipped to developing countries for cheap disposal without the informed consent of their governments. The often substandard shipping, storage, and treatment methods endanger human health and the health of the environment. See air pollution; pollution; solid waste; water pollution.