20 September 2005

Toxic Soup

Over the past couple of days, several articles have appeared in various places about the dangers from toxic materials in areas devastated by Katrina. All have discussed the environmental risks, health risks, and other dangers. The picture that these articles paint is grim. Even some of the more upbeat articles, contain phrases that are a bit alarming ("a toxic gumbo like we've never seen,"). The optimistic end of the timeframe for the entire city being safe to resettle is expressed in months. The pessimistic end... let's just say that it's pretty pessimistic.

The contamination comes from many sources. In fact, it is not at all an exaggeration to say that the contamination is coming from virtually everywhere. Many of the articles have listed household items as a source of contamination, and a few have even mentioned some of the more common household hazards. I'm going to do something that is (I think/hope) a little bit different. I'm going to take a look, in detail, at the household hazardous materials that are in my carport, and at the dangers of each.

It's actually pretty easy to find out what hazards, if any, are associated with items in your house. One of the various federal requirements (I believe it's OSHA's, but I'm not positive) is that Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) be available for pretty much any kind of chemical product that's sold in the US. They aren't very hard to find, usually. It's usually just a matter of going to the manufacturer's website and hunting around until you find them. If they're not available there, you can usually find them through google if you're persistent enough. I did that for the stuff that's out in the storage cabinet in my carport.

I went out, took a quick inventory, went on line, and started hunting. Listed below is what I found. I've grouped things into categories based on a rough assessment of how bad they are. The links on the item names should bring up MSDS sheets.

  • Mostly Harmless:

    • Fertilizer, 16-16-16, ~5kg. The ecological effects are listed as unknown, and there might be some. Large increases in the nutrient content of a body of water can lead to algal blooms and other unpleasantness. Right now, there's no way to know if the household fertilizer releases will have any impact.
    • RoundUp weed killer, ~1L. I really wasn't expecting the weed killer to wind up in this category, but it is minimally toxic and readily biodegrades.

  • Not Too Bad

    • Raid roach spray, 3 cans, don't know how full. The MSDS isn't all that helpful. All the ecological and long-term toxicological sections are listed as "unknown".

    • Bleach, ~6L. Poisonous and a short-term health risk. Long term/environmental also unknown.

    • Windex. ~2L. Not too bad healthwise, but there's a "keep out of watersheds" warning in the MSDS.

  • Not Good

    • Prestone Anti-Freeze (about 1L or so). Ethylene Glycol is not good for you. It's a poison and it can cause mutations. In addition to birth defect concerns, this also raises cancer concerns. According to the MSDS, no conclusive link has been found between antifreeze and cancer, but the short-term toxic effects alone are enough to put it into this category.

    • 10W40 Motor Oil, 3 quarts. The toxicological and ecological sections are listed as "unknown", but I don't think it takes an Einstein to figure out that motor oil is bad for stuff.

    • Acetone, ~500mL. Not good to breathe, not good to drink.

    • lacquer Thinner, ~5L. A tasty mix of methanol, xylene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and acetone. Yummy.

  • No Clue

    • Paint. Don't know what kind - the label is covered with paint. 2 or three partially congealed cans of this stuff. It's blue, but that's about all I know.

    • One unlabeled jar of something that I'm almost sure is more fertilizer. I seem to remember borrowing something from one of the neighbors to use on an orchid. (This kind of thing is worth a hefty OSHA fine when it happens in a lab.)

That's just from one small carport locker. Inside the house, there's a whole cabinet of assorted cleaning supplies. Ammonia, oven cleaner, scrubbing bubbles, more bug spray, more windex, and who knows what evil is lurking under the sink.

If half that stuff spilled in the lab at one time, I'd have to call the environmental safety folks to come over, clean it up, and drop 50 pounds of paperwork on my head. If it spills in my house during a flood, and is still there when I get home, someone (probably me) is going to have to clean it up. Probably nothing bad will happen right then, and probably the exposure won't cause long-term problems, but it might. The risk is definitely there. But that's only a very small, very localized part of the problem.

Take the list from my house, and assume that it is excessive. Assume that I've got more hazardous gunk in my house than 75% of the general public (actually, it's probably no worse than average). If so, and assuming that only 10,000 homes were badly flooded in the New Orleans area, that's still a total spill 2,500 times greater than the quantities I listed above. Let's put that into perspective: 1250 L of acetone, 12,500 L of thinner, 1875 gallons of motor oil, and that's just the start.

That's also just the household chemicals. There's still gas stations, dry-cleaners, carpet-cleaners, and a whole mass of other small businesses that deal with lots of chemicals. Then there are the landfills, and the superfund sites, and the petrochemical industries, and everything else. "Toxic gumbo" is probably an understatement. This situation is simply a nightmare. So far, the major oil spills alone total millions of gallons. There have been several news reports indicating that there is so much oil in some of the flood-deposited gunk that the testing labs are having problems detecting anything else.

And it gets worse.

Some of the stuff is going to wash away fairly quickly, but some of it is going to settle out into the sediment. The sediment is the mud that people are going to have to clean out of everything. That's not going to be easy. Some of that sediment is going to linger - maybe not in houses, but in yards, and parks, and other places.

A lot of the stuff that washed away quickly, and a whole lot of the stuff that settles out, is going to wind up in nearby bodies of water, like Lake Pontchartrain. Besides the short-term ecological effects, which are simply impossible to predict, there are also long-term effects that are impossible to predict. One question is going to be how much of the toxic material is going to accumulate in tissues. Will fish from that lake be edible any time soon? What about shellfish in the Gulf near New Orleans?

The sad and simple truth is that we just don't have any basis for predicting any of the effects of the toxic disaster. Nothing like it has ever happened in the United States before. It will, quite literally, be decades before we know what the long-term effects are. There are probably going to be some, and they are probably going to be bad, but that's about all we can say right now.

Cleaning this up is going to be difficult, but it is not going to directly involve most of us. Preventing a repeat of this, on the other hand, is something that should involve all of us. Do yourself, and the rest of us, a favor. Go out to your garage, or carport, or shed, or whatever. Look at the hazardous materials that are there, figure out what you really need to keep, and properly dispose of the rest. The regulations for this will vary from place to place, and it may be inconvenient. Do it anyway. After all, next time the toxic sludge might be in your livingroom.
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