There are many types of hazardous waste that pose varying degrees of danger to public safety and environmental health. Disposal of these materials can be challenging and often needs to be handled by professionals. The proliferation of hazardous waste has driven the creation of an industry specifically designed to attempt to deal with them in as safe a manner as possible.
Waste generated from nuclear power plants and nuclear weapon technology is arguably the most dangerous created by society. The dangers associated with nuclear waste are compounded by the extremely long half life of radioactive materials, during which they maintain their hazardous properties. Dangers from nuclear waste include both immediate health risks and long-term risks related to increases in cancer and birth defects. There are also safety issues around nuclear waste as certain types can be used as weapons and need to be stringently controlled.
Many cleaners and solvents used in industrial and commercial processes become hazardous wastes after their use. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has specific technical groupings based on whether they come from specific or non-specific industries or processes as well as the degree of danger they pose. These include wood preservation chemicals, compounds that contain dioxin and refinery wastewater. Pharmaceutical manufacturing and organic chemical production also lead to the creation of hazardous wastes. The EPA publishes guidelines on the disposal of hazardous industrial waste.
Another category of hazardous waste is designated as universal waste. This waste is generated from a large variety of sources and consists of products that serve both commercial and personal use. Two of the prime examples of universal waste are batteries and light bulbs. Used throughout society in great quantities, disposal of batteries and other forms of universal waste cannot be as closely monitored or controlled as industrial waste. Commonly just thrown out with the trash, these wastes make their way into landfills and incinerators where their toxic components are released into the environment.
Medical waste of certain types can be a biohazard and pose safety risks. Though the U.S. EPA does not strictly designate medical waste as hazardous, it definitely can cause health problems if it is not properly managed. Discarded needles and blood products have the potential to spread diseases and cause injury. Most medical waste streams are regulated at the state and local level.
Waste from construction sites can be hazardous. Asbestos tiles and insulation, lead pipes and certain chemicals used in maintenance all fall into this category. The construction industry needs to be aware of these hazards and vigilant in their safe disposal. EPA guidelines again regulate and educate the industry on the disposal of their waste.
Many electronic products contain trace amounts of hazardous materials that can pose problems if incinerated or disposed of in a landfill. Computers contain many components that fall into this category, including CPUs, CRT monitors and printed circuit boards. Their widespread use and unregulated disposal make them a real contributor to the overall hazardous waste problem.