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Impacts of Hazardous Waste

Discusses the impacts of hazardous waste on the environment and human health, and the provisions of the Superfund Act.

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Impacts of Hazardous Waste

What role do citizens play in protecting their environment?

Sometimes it's up to the residents in an area to recognize the effects of hazardous waste and to get the government to find the responsible party and initiate cleanup. Here, a resident of Love Canal protests the hazardous waste contamination in her neighborhood.

Love Canal

The story of Love Canal, New York, begins in the 1950s, when a local chemical company placed hazardous wastes in 55-gallon steel drums and buried them. Love Canal was an abandoned waterway near Niagara Falls and was thought to be a safe site for hazardous waste disposal because the ground was fairly impermeable (Figure below). After burial, the company covered the containers with soil and sold the land to the local school system for $1. The company warned the school district that the site had been used for toxic waste disposal.

Steel drums were used to contain 21,000 tons of hazardous chemicals at Love Canal.

Soon a school, a playground, and 100 homes were built on the site. The impermeable ground was breached when sewer systems were dug into the rock layer. Over time, the steel drums rusted and the chemicals were released into the ground. In the 1960s people began to notice bad odors. Children developed burns after playing in the soil, and they were often sick. In 1977 a swamp created by heavy rains was found to contain 82 toxic chemicals, including 11 suspected cancer-causing chemicals.

A Love Canal resident, Lois Gibbs, organized a group of citizens called the Love Canal Homeowners Association to try to find out what was causing the problems (Figure above). When they discovered that toxic chemicals were buried beneath their homes and school, they demanded that the government take action to clean up the area and remove the chemicals.

A video of Lois Gibbs describing the origin of the Love Canal problem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrzqFPego4A.

Superfund Act

In 1978, people were relocated to safe areas. The problem of Love Canal was instrumental in the passage of the the Superfund Act in 1980. This law requires companies to be responsible for hazardous chemicals that they put into the environment and to pay to clean up polluted sites, which can often cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Love Canal became a Superfund site in 1983 and as a result, several measures were taken to secure the toxic wastes. The land was capped so that water could not reach the waste, debris was cleaned from the nearby area, and contaminated soils were removed.

Impacts of Hazardous Waste

The pollution at Love Canal was not initially visible, but it became visible. The health effects from the waste were also not initially visible, but they became clearly visible. The effects of the contamination that were seen in human health included sickness in children and a higher than normal number of miscarriages in pregnant women. Toxic chemicals may cause cancer and birth defects. Why do you think children and fetuses are more susceptible? Because young organisms grow more rapidly, they take in more of the toxic chemicals and are more affected.

Cancer Clusters

Sometimes the chemicals are not so easily seen as they were at Love Canal. But the impacts can be seen statistically. For example, contaminated drinking water may cause an increase in some types of cancer in a community.

Why is one person with cancer not enough to suspect contamination by toxic waste? One is not a statistically valid number. A certain number of people get cancer all the time. To identify contamination, a number of cancers above the normal rate, called a cancer cluster, must be discovered. A case that was made into a book and movie called A Civil Action involved the community of Woburn, Massachusetts. Groundwater contamination was initially suspected because of an increase in childhood leukemia and other illnesses. As a result of concern by parents, the well water was analyzed and shown to have high levels of TCE (trichloroethylene).

Toxic Metals

Lead and mercury are two chemicals that are especially toxic to humans. Lead was once a common ingredient in gasoline and paint, but it was shown to damage human brains and nervous systems. Since young children are growing rapidly, lead is especially harmful in children under the age of six (Figure below). In the 1970s and 1980s, the United States government passed laws completely banning lead in gasoline and paint. Homes built before the 1970s may contain lead paint. Paint so old is likely to be peeling and poses a great threat to human health. About 200 children die every year from lead poisoning.

(a) Leaded gasoline. (b) Leaded paint.

Mercury is a pollutant that can easily spread around the world. Sources of mercury include volcanic eruptions, coal burning, and wastes such as batteries, electronic switches, and electronic appliances such as television sets. Like lead, mercury damages the brain and impairs nervous system function. More about the hazards of mercury pollution can be found later in this concept.


  • Superfund Act: A law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1980 that held companies responsible for any hazardous chemicals that they might create.
  • Superfund site: A site where hazardous waste has been spilled. Under the Superfund Act, the company that created the hazardous waste is responsible for cleaning up the waste.


  • The Superfund Act of 1980 requires that companies safely dispose of hazardous chemicals they generate and clean up sites they pollute.
  • The effects of hazardous wastes on human populations include miscarriages, birth defects, brain damage, and cancer, particularly in children.
  • An individual may develop a disease, like cancer, but when the number of cases of the disease exceeds what is found in other areas, it is cause for concern.


1. If waste is to remain hazardous for a long period of time, how can society protect itself from problems as occurred at Love Canal?

2. What is the Superfund Act and how did Love Canal lead to it?

3. What is a cancer cluster? What should be done if one is found?

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