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Improper Disposal of Hazardous Substances and Resulting Injuries --- Selected States, January 2001--March 2005

Many consumer and industrial products, including fuels, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, paints, and household cleaning disinfectants, contain hazardous substances. Improper disposal of these materials can lead to unexpected releases of toxins that are hazardous to humans and harmful to the environment. This report summarizes all known events involving improper disposal of hazardous substances reported to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) during January 2001--March 2005, describes four illustrative case reports, and provides recommendations for preventing injury resulting from improper disposal.

ATSDR maintains the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) system to collect and analyze data about the public health consequences (i.e., morbidity, mortality, and evacuation) of hazardous-substance--release events.* The information in this report is based on events reported to HSEES from 18 participating state health departments during January 2001--March 2005.§ Improper disposal events are defined as events in which a hazardous substance is placed in municipal waste and subsequently causes a release or potential release that requires (or would have required) removal, clean-up, or neutralization according to federal, state, or local law.

Summary of HSEES Data

A total of 36,784 events involving release of hazardous substances were reported to HSEES during January 2001--March 2005. Of these, 107 (0.3%) were associated with improper disposal. All 18 states reported this type of event, with New York (47 [44%] events) and Washington (13 [12%]) reporting the most events. Sixteen (15%) events involved fires or explosions. Of the 159 known improper disposal locations, releases occurred most frequently in residential (59 [37%]) and commercial settings (53 [33%]). Of the 284** total substances involved in improper disposal events, the most common substances were hydrochloric acid (24 [8%]), acid not otherwise specified (15 [5%]), and iodine-131 (six [2%]).

Of the 107 events, 35 (33%) resulted in injuries to 69 persons, 64 (93%) of whom were categorized as employees. HSEES does not collect specific information on type of employee injured (e.g., sanitation worker). However, evaluation of the comment field on incidence reports indicated that more than half (39 [57%]) of the 64 injured employees were sanitation workers.

The 69 injured persons had a total of 101 reported injuries, most frequently respiratory irritation (46 [46%]), dizziness or other central nervous system symptoms (12 [12%]), eye irritation (11 [11%]), and burns (nine [9%]). Forty-two (61%) injured persons were treated at hospitals but not admitted, 11 (16%) were treated at the scene, four (6%) were examined by private physicians, three (4%) were treated at hospitals and admitted, and three (4%) were sent to hospitals for observation. The remaining six (9%) persons experienced adverse health effects within 24 hours of exposure; these injuries were reported through official channels (e.g., fire or police departments, emergency medical services, or poison control centers). No deaths occurred.

Evacuation was ordered for 13 (12%) of the 107 events. The number of evacuees was known for nine of the events, for which 74 persons were known to have evacuated; the number of persons per event ranged from two to 25 (median: six persons per event). The median length of evacuation was 3 hours (range: 1--82 hours).

Of the 97 (91%) events for which decontamination status was known, decontamination of potentially exposed persons was necessary in 31 (32%) events. Ninety-two persons were decontaminated; of these, 61 (66%) were emergency responders, 29 (32%) were employees (i.e., sanitation workers or employees of the industry involved in the release), and two (2%) were members of the general public.

Case Reports

The following case reports illustrate the danger involved in improper disposal of hazardous substances.

New York. In June 2004, a sanitation truck compacted an improperly disposed of container of hydrochloric acid, releasing approximately 10 gallons of the hazardous substance into a commercial/residential area. Two male sanitation workers sustained chemical burns and were decontaminated on the scene, treated at a hospital, and released. A hazardous materials (HazMat) team, law enforcement officials, fire department officials, and emergency medical services personnel responded to the event.

Colorado. In March 2003, a hospital employee improperly disposed of an unknown quantity of radioactive waste in a dumpster. The dumpster contents were picked up by a garbage truck. Later, as the garbage truck approached the landfill, the contents activated radiation detectors at the landfill. No injuries were reported; however, four first responders were decontaminated at the site. Access to the landfill was restricted until the radioactive waste was removed. A company emergency response team, fire department officials, and hospital personnel responded to the event.

Washington. In June 2002, hydrochloric acid used in an illicit methamphetamine laboratory was disposed of in an apartment building dumpster. Later, a male sanitation worker sustained respiratory irritation when the acid was dumped into the back of his truck. After the exposure occurred, his supervisor took the worker to a physician for observation. Law enforcement officials, fire department officials, emergency medical services personnel, and an environmental agency responded to the event.

Wisconsin. In August 2001, a sanitation truck compacted an improperly disposed of container of hydrochloric acid, releasing approximately 1 gallon of the hazardous substance into a residential area. The sanitation truck driver sustained chemical burns after coming into contact with the acid. He was transported to a hospital, treated for his injury, and released. A HazMat response team responded to the event.

Reported by: DK Horton, MSPH, S Rossiter, MPH, MF Orr, MS, Div of Health Studies, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Editorial Note:

This report illustrates the dangers associated with improper disposal of hazardous substances. Although improper disposal events accounted for a limited number of hazardous-substance--release events overall, HSEES has been recording approximately 25 such events per year, and the potential for additional events appears substantial. Persons in the United States generate approximately 1.6 million tons of household hazardous waste each year (2). An average household can accumulate as much as 100 pounds of hazardous waste in basements, garages, and storage closets (2). In addition, industries and businesses in the United States generate more than 40 million tons of hazardous waste annually (3).

Because many hazardous substances are toxic, flammable, corrosive, explosive, or even radioactive, they can be dangerous when disposed of improperly. Of particular concern is the hazard to sanitation workers because sanitation trucks, especially those with compactors, can easily breach hazardous substance containers, resulting in releases and mixing of substances. During this reporting period, more than half the injured persons were sanitation workers.

At least five of the events were caused by improper disposal of hazardous substances used in illicit methamphetamine laboratories (e.g., hydrochloric acid, ether, and acetone). Substances used in methamphetamine production, many of which are volatile, are often disposed of in municipal waste containers. When these substances are discarded and compacted, the potential for a hazardous release, fire, and explosion is increased.

The majority of the 101 reported injuries examined in this analysis were not life threatening, and no deaths occurred during the reporting period. However, a previous HSEES analysis described the death of a sanitation worker exposed to an improperly disposed of container of hydrofluoric acid (4).

The findings in this report are subject to at least two limitations. Reporting of events to HSEES is not mandatory; therefore, participating state health departments might not be informed about every event. Second, only 18 state health departments provided data to HSEES during the reporting period; therefore, these data underrepresent the total hazardous-substance--release events in the United States.

The findings suggest the need for development and implementation of effective public health strategies to prevent improper disposal practices or injuries resulting from those practices (2,5--7). Such strategies include educating the public regarding proper methods for disposing of hazardous substances, promoting the use of alternative products that do not contain hazardous substances, and organizing community collection days for disposal of hazardous substances (Box).

Acknowledgments

The findings in this report are based, in part, on contributions by T Arant, Alabama Dept of Public Health. C Kelley, Colorado Dept of Health. A Becker, PhD, Florida Dept of Health. D Cooper, Iowa Dept of Public Health. K Lanier, Louisiana Dept of Health and Hospitals. M Stanbury, MPH, Michigan Dept of Community Health. N Rice, MPH, Minnesota Dept of Health. R Mozingo, Mississippi State Dept of Health. C Henry, Missouri Dept of Health and Senior Svcs. J Savrin, New Jersey Dept of Health and Senior Svcs. R Wilburn, MPH, New York State Dept of Health. S Giles, MPH, North Carolina Dept of Health and Human Svcs. T Tsongas, PhD, Oregon Public Health Svcs. L Phillips, Rhode Island Dept of Health. R Harris, Texas Dept of Health. W Ball, PhD, Utah Dept of Health. W Clifford, Washington Dept of Health. J Drew, Wisconsin Dept of Health and Family Svcs.

References

  1. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance System (HSEES), 2001 annual report. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; 2001. Available at http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HS/HSEES/annual2001.html.
  2. US Environmental Protection Agency. Household hazardous waste. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency; 2005. Available at http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/muncpl/hhw.htm.
  3. US Environmental Protection Agency. Basic facts about waste. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency; 2004. Available at http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/osw/facts.htm.
  4. Horton DK, Berkowitz Z, Kaye WE. Secondary contamination of emergency department personnel from hazardous materials events, 1995--2001. Am J Emerg Med 2003;21:28--33.
  5. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Household hazardous waste disposal. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency; 1993. Available at http://www.moea.state.mn.us/hhw/w-hhw2-02.pdf.
  6. CDC. Acute public health consequences from illicit methamphetamine laboratories---selected states, January 2000--June 2004. MMWR 2005;54:356--9.
  7. Ruckart PZ, Orr MF, Kaye WE. Hazardous-chemical releases in the home. J Environ Health 2004;67:14--9.

* An HSEES event is the acute release or threatened release of a hazardous substance into the environment in an amount that requires (or would have required) removal, cleanup, or neutralization according to federal, state, or local law (1). A hazardous substance is one that can reasonably be expected to cause an adverse health effect upon exposure.

Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.

§ Data through March 31, 2005, were the most recent available when the analysis was conducted; data for 2004 and 2005 are provisional.

Exceeds the number of events because some events may occur in mixed-use locations (e.g., in a residential and commercial area).

** Exceeds the number of events because certain events involved multiple substances.

Box

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Date last reviewed: 9/14/2005

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