What Makes a Chemical or Waste Hazardous?

The core purpose and intent of the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment process (and subsequent processes) is to physically locate, chemically characterize, quantify, and remediate (cleanup) any hazardous chemicals or materials that may present a threat to human health, safety, or the environment. It at least it sounds pretty simple.

Hazardous chemicals and materials commonly include degreasers, cleaning solvents, spent acids and bases, metal finishing wastes, paint wastes (lacquer thinners), wastewater sludges, PCBs, herbicides/pesticides, and many other materials.  Hazardous wastes generally include materials not commonly thought of as hazardous such as batteries (acids, bases, heavy metals), CRT-based computer monitors (lead) , thermostats and fluorescent lamps (mercury), and old chemicals stockpiled in your garage, shed, or company storage area.

Not all wastes are regulated as hazardous wastes.  The wastes that are classified as “hazardous wastes” are specifically defined under federal regulations (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA, 1976) and various state regulations.  Most state’s environmental regulations incorporate Section 40 CFR, Part 261 of RCRA.  Hazardous wastes may be divided into two basic groups:  characteristically hazardous wastes and listed hazardous wastes .


The Chemist Charles Moeller 1875_opt

The Chemist, Louis Charles Moeller (1855-1930). The Chemist was painted in 1875.

“Hazardous chemicals” and “hazardous materials” have a multitude of definitions depending on where you look. Under federal regulations, a hazardous chemical or materials exhibits ONE or MORE of the FOUR characteristics described here. Other kinds of chemicals and wastes are identified as “hazardous” under state regulations for administrative, handling, and management streamlining purposes.

Characteristically Hazardous Chemicals & Wastes

(1) Does the chemical or waste have an unusually low pH (acidic) or high pH (corrosive)?

A waste is corrosive if it is aqueous, i.e. water-based, and has a pH of 2.0 or lower (making it a strong acid) or 12.5 or higher (making it a strong alkali or base) or if it can corrode steel at a rate of greater than ¼ inch per year.

(2) Is the chemical or waste ignitable or very flammable?

A waste is ignitable if it is liquid and has a flash point below 140-degrees Fahrenheit; if it is a flammable solid; it is an ignitable compressed gas; or, if it is classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation as an oxidizer.

 (3) Is the chemical or waste toxic?

A waste is toxic if it contains any of forty different hazardous constituents at a concentration equal to or greater than a certain amount.  These forty constituents include eight metals, six pesticides, two herbicides, ten volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and fourteen semi-volatile organic compounds (semi-VOCs).

(4) Is the chemical or waste reactive?

There are numerous ways a chemical or waste may be defined as a reactive waste.  In summary, reactive chemicals and wastes that are unstable, react with water or otherwise form hazardous mixtures with water, are capable of releasing  toxic cyanide or sulfide gases under certain conditions, are explosive, or are capable of detonating under certain conditions.

Listed Hazardous Wastes

Certain chemicals and waste types that are hazardous because they are listed on one or more of four different particular federal chemical and waste lists. These waste lists were developed within RCRA for the purpose of identifying certain kinds of chemical wastes for manifesting purposes:

F-Listed  Wastes.  This list of wastes includes twenty-eight different wastes, including certain used solvents, metal finishing wastes, dioxin-containing wastes, chemical manufacturing wastes, wood preserving wastes, petroleum manufacturing wastes, and hazardous waste landfill leachate.

K-Listed  Wastes. This list of wastes includes over 100 wastes from specific industrial      processes. The specific processes are in the industries of wood preserving, petroleum refining, primary and secondary metals  manufacturing, and the manufacturing of industrial chemicals, inks,  pigments, pesticides, explosives, and veterinary pharmaceuticals.

U-Listed  Wastes.  This list of wastes includes several hundred different commercial chemical products.  Wastes that fall under this listing include only those  products that contain the listed constituent as the sole active  ingredient.  These wastes include old or off-specification virgin  materials that are being discarded, as well as container residues and  spill residues of these materials.

P-Listed Wastes. This list of wastes includes about 200 different commercial chemical      products that are defined as acutely hazardous.  This means that the wastes are especially toxic.  Wastes that fall under this listing include only those products that contain the listed constituent as the sole active ingredient.  These wastes include old or off-specification virgin materials that are being discarded, as well as container residues and spill residues of these materials.

So Called “Universal Wastes”

This is a special subset of hazardous wastes that are regulated under a streamlined set of regulations called The Universal Waste Rule.  These wastes include:

Batteries.  Batteries subject to this classification include lead-acid batteries, nickel-cadmium batteries, silver cells, and mercury-containing batteries.

Cancelled and recalled pesticides.

Mercury  thermostats and other mercury-containing equipment, i.e. mercury  switches, barometers, sphygmomanometers, thermometers, etc.

Mercury-containing  lamps. This includes fluorescent lamps (including compact fluorescent lamps),  mercury vapor lamps, and other lamps that contain mercury.

Used electronics. This includes desk top and lap top computers, computer peripherals,      monitors, copying machines, scanners, printers, radios, televisions,  camcorders, video cassette recorders (“VCRs”), compact disc players,  digital video disc players, MP3 players, telephones, including cellular and portable telephones, and stereo systems.

What About Used Motor Oil and Like Petroleum?

Just as with Universal Waste, hazardous waste regulations also have a special set of requirements for used oil.  The term “used oil” means any oil refined from crude oil or synthetic oil, that: (a) has been used and as a result of such use is contaminated by physical or chemical impurities; or (b) is no longer suitable for the services for which it was manufactured due to the presence of impurities or a loss of original properties.  This includes both used and unused oils that are being managed as a waste. Common examples of used oils include:

Used crankcase (motor) oil

Brake fluid,  transmission fluid, and power steering fluid

Used gear, chain, and ball bearing lubricants

Hydraulic and compressor oils

Metalworking  fluids (including water-soluble coolants and cutting oils

Drawing and stamping oils

Heat transfer oils (including quenching oils)

Dielectric fluid, e.g., transformer oil

Requirements for Other Wastes/Materials

In addition to the hazardous chemicals and wastes described here, there are other materials that, although they are not subject to hazardous waste requirements, must be handled in certain, special ways:

Household  Hazardous Wastes. These are wastes that are similar to the wastes listed above, but that are generated by residents in their homes while doing routine household activities.  Examples of household hazardous waste include paints, stains, solvents, pesticides, old gasoline and other fuels, etc. These wastes are just as hazardous as their commercially-generated counterparts, but are not subject to hazardous waste requirements. However, state regulatory encourages agencies household residents to properly dispose of their household hazardous wastes by taking them to a state-authorized household  hazardous waste collection center or event.

Non-RCRA-Hazardous Wastes (similar to hazardous wastes).  These are wastes that are not hazardous according to any of the definitions described above, but that are similar in nature to hazardous wastes.  These include some paints, e.g., latex paints, solvents, and other chemicals.  Even though they are not regulated as hazardous wastes, commercial generators of these wastes may not place them in the ordinary trash.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs (both those being disposed of and those that are still in-use) are subject to a special set of rules that are separate from the hazardous  waste regulations.

Pesticides.  As noted above, discarded pesticides are often regulated as hazardous wastes or as  Universal Wastes.

Quiz yourself. Which of the following are hazardous (as defined here)?

(a) a used thermostat from your house

(b) a small can of paint thinner

(c) used batteries from your old radio

(d) crankcase oil drained from your motorcycle

(e)  animal droppings

(f) residential wastewater, i.e. sewerage

(g) old cans of house paint in your basement

(I) a junk lawnmower

(j) a syringe on the beach

Accolades or gripes? jgossweiler@federatedenvironmental.com