Caution: HAZMAT Dealing with Hazardous Materials

Caution: HAZMAT

When we hear the term "Hazmat" - shorthand for "hazardous materials" it usually conjures images of guys in silver moon-suits and respirators, arriving on the scene of a tanker truck collision or industrial emergency involving dangerous waste materials or pathogens. The fact is, however, that there are plenty of substances and products in our own buildings that fall under the hazmat classification, and all to often we dismiss the dangers residing alongside us.

"Hazmat' is a very broad term," according to Patrick Flynn, the lieutenant director of the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY)'s Environmental Police Unit, "and many people overlook some of the most dangerous materials out there."

And many of those products are biding their time under your sink, or in your super's broom closet. Household cleaning products alone account for a large proportion of everyday hazmats, and should be taken very seriously, despite their ubiquity and helpful intent. Multiply the products and chemicals one resident or family keeps in their unit by the number of units in your building, block and city, and the presence of potentially harmful materials grows exponentially.

The Main Offenders

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington, DC, hazardous materials fall into four main classifications:

Corrosives are materials eat other materials and surfaces away gradually, generally through chemical action. Some of the most common products in this category are metal cleaners containing phosphoric acid; drain cleaners that contain sulfuric acid; rust-spot removers with hydrofluoric acid, and drain and oven cleaners containing sodium hydroxide or lye. All of these are hazardous to the skin, eyes, and lungs, as well as the environment and surfaces not intended for the product's use.

Ignitables are materials that pose fire hazards during routine handling and management. The danger with these materials is amplified beyond fire and smoke damage to the spread of harmful particles over wide areas. Common warnings found on ignitables' packaging include "flammable" and "explosive." The most recognizable of these products include gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, ammunition, matches, and any items containing alcohol.

Reactive materials have a tendency to react with air or water, to become unstable when coupled with heat or shock, and to generate noxious gases or explode. Many reactive products contain sodium bisulfate which, when mixed with water, makes a weak sulfuric acid. Bleach and many scrubbing and dishwashing detergents contain chlorine, and if put in contact with ammonia, lye, or acids, the chemical will form a toxic and potentially deadly gas.

Toxics are the most easily recognized group of hazmats, and encompass nearly all the aforementioned materials. Toxicants release poisons in sufficient quantities to pose a substantial hazard to human health if breathed, swallowed, or allowed to penetrate the skin. Most households are full of these products, which are required by law to have a CAUTION: warning and the telltale skull and crossbones printed conspicuously somewhere on the label. From air fresheners to carpet deodorizers, most medicines and even vitamins, bathroom cleaners to oven cleaners, the average home or building supply storage is full of toxics.

Using Smart, Keeping Safe

Nearly all cleaning products, whether household or industrial, come with explicit instructions about how to use and store them safely. But familiarity can often breed contempt - or at least incaution - and it never hurts to reiterate to both residents and staff the importance of proper use and storage of hazardous or toxic products.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), residents and building staff members can make their broom closets, storage rooms, and under-the-sink spaces safer by:

"¢ Posting the national poison control number (1-800-222-1222) on or near every home and office telephone in the building.

"¢ By knowing the names of the plants in your building and yard or garden, and identifying any poisonous plants and either removing them or placing them out of reach of children.

"¢ By monitoring the air quality in your building. Residents should place carbon monoxide monitors near the bedrooms in their units; a new requirement under the city's Local Law 7 of 2004.

"¢ By making sure all combustion (fuel burning) appliances are professionally installed and inspected annually. This includes furnaces, boilers, and major exhaust systems and ductwork.

"¢ By checking your building and individual units for lead-based paints and making sure new construction work doesn't dislodge any old asbestos insulation. Contact the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD to receive more detailed information.

There are also guidelines from the AAPCC for using potentially dangerous products safely, both in private homes and common areas. To minimize the risk to health and property, the Centers recommend that anyone using hazmats:

"¢ Always store cleaning products and chemicals in their original containers. "¢ Do not use any other type of container - such as buckets or bottles - to store chemical products. It's especially important that corrosive or reactant products be kept in the proper containers; many corrosives will eat through metal, and reactants often must be kept in airtight containers.

"¢ Always read the labels before using a potentially poisonous product. Never leave the product unattended while using it, and return the product to a locked cabinet or stockroom when you are finished.

"¢ Turn on a fan and open windows and/or doors when using chemical products.

"¢ Wear protective clothing (gloves, long pants, long sleeves, socks, and shoes) when spraying pesticides and other chemicals.

"¢ Never mix household and chemical products together. A poisonous gas may be created when mixing chemicals.

"¢ Do not burn fuels or charcoal or use gasoline-powered engines in confined spaces such as garages, tents, or poorly ventilated rooms. This contributes to the production of carbon monoxide and can lead to symptoms ranging from dizziness and nausea to coma and death from prolonged exposure.

In Case of Emergency

Even when instructions are followed and warnings heeded, accidents and mishaps can still occur. When that happens, says Flynn and the CDC, it's vital that people know what to do, whom to call, and remain calm. If someone in your building or unit is exposed to a hazardous material, either by inhaling it, spilling it on themselves, or ingesting it, you must act quickly to minimize the harm. According to the CDC, "If you have a poison emergency and the victim has collapsed or is not breathing, call 911. If you have a poison exposure and the victim is alert, call 1-800-222-1222. Try to have the following information ready if possible: the person's age and estimated weight, the container or bottle of the poisonous product, time that the poison exposure occurred - if available, your name and phone number. Follow the instructions from the emergency operator or the poison control center."

Helpful Disposal Hints

If all goes well, you've used, cleaned-up, and stored the hazmats in your home or building carefully and without incident. Now, maybe you've got a little product left in the bottom of the container, or it's past its expiration date, or you just have no use for the remainder of the chemical or product. What do you do with the packaging and leftover material? How do you get rid of it safely?

One way to cut down on waste is to consolidate "leftovers" from one container with another. As long as the products are imperishable and of the same brand, composition, and concentration, combining the dregs of the nearly-gone bottle with the of new prevents potentially hazardous chemicals from going down the drain or winding up on the stoop.

Some products offer directions as to how to dispose - or not dispose - of any contents left in the container, but the majority don't go into much detail and may leave out important steps in the process. In these cases, the next best place to start is the content listing and warning labels to gauge the volatility or corrosive potential of the containers contents.

Another place for information is the DSNY, which can be accessed via the city's all-encompassing 311 information line and can answer any questions regarding the proper disposal of anything from motor oil to latex paint to sulfuric acid. "First and foremost, residents, supers and custodians alike should contact 311 in these situations," says Flynn. "This is exactly the type of situation 311 is set up to help with. They are well equipped to refer you to the proper agency to handle your call."

Generally, says Flynn, the most dangerous materials discarded in residential buildings are used by supers and custodians. "They tend to do the more commercial tasks and therefore use more concentrated products."

An example of these concentrates is sulfuric acid, an extremely caustic substance often used for cleaning bricks. If materials such as this are put in the waste-stream, they become dangers instantly.

"Sanitation trucks have very powerful, hydraulic crushing mechanisms, as well as blades," says Flynn. "This creates a high risk for workers to be splashed when a container is crushed in the truck."

For reasons such as this, the DSNY has special waste sites set up in each borough. These sites take only specific materials. They will take items and materials not suitable for curbside disposal. For a list a these items check the DSNY website.

According to Taryn Duckett, a spokesperson for the department, "There is a very helpful pamphlet about hazmat disposal on the DSNY website: (www.nyc.gov/html/dos/home.html). The pamphlet and other helpful pages on the website offer useful solutions to common waste disposal questions."

A Word on Asbestos and Lead

It's one thing to do what we can to be conscientious about the products we use voluntarily, but what about the materials over which we have no control? Lead paint and asbestos insulation are excellent examples of this that have gotten a lot of media and legislative attention in recent years.

According to Joseph Bova, president of Onsite Environmental Corp., a consulting firm that deals primarily with asbestos issues, "Just because a structure is relatively new does not mean it is asbestos-free."

The most common examples of materials that to this day contain or are manufactured with asbestos, says Bova, are roofing materials. "The flashing cement used in roofing does contain chrysotile fiber, which is asbestos. Another place asbestos can commonly be found is on your floor. Vinyl floor tiles very often contain asbestos."

Does this mean that you are in danger by walking on your tiles, or that asbestos is leaking from your roof into your home? The answer is no. "Asbestos is a rock that when disturbed in certain ways - such as sanding, drilling or grinding - can release microscopic particles into the air," says Bova. These particles become airborne, and can be ingested by humans, causing respiratory ailments and even cancer.

"But the asbestos does need to be manipulated in such a way that it can be released into the air in order to become dangerous," Bova stresses, pointing out that asbestos really only becomes a problem if it's disturbed during a major construction project or other disruptive event.

The bottom line with asbestos," says Bova, is that "people should treat asbestos like they would treat a bee; if you start swinging at a bee, you are going to get stung. If you just leave it alone, everyone is happy."

Lead paint is another hazmat that gets regular press here in the city. Paint used in pre-war and 1950s-era buildings often contained high quantities of lead, a toxic substance linked to learning disabilities, brain damage, blindness, and even death in small children who ingest significant amounts. Lead imparts a sweet taste to substances it's mixed with, and peeling paint chips often tempt toddlers and teething babies who tend to put anything and everything into their mouths. Pulverized lead-based paint - again, usually from disruptive construction projects - can become airborne in the form of dust, and cause lead poisoning in adults, as well.

For unseen hazmats like lead and asbestos, the key to avoiding the harm they can cause is knowing they're there and dealing with them delicately, but decisively. Lead and asbestos testing and assessment are their own entire industries, and most testing companies offer containment/removal services as well.

According to Joe Cusenza, a principal of GlobalTech, Inc., a lead detection/removal firm based in Brooklyn, if a lead hazard is detected, your building may not need to undergo a disruptive removal program. There are several spray- or brush-on products that safely "encase" the lead contaminated areas. "Encasement is every bit as effective as removal," says Cusenza. "In fact, removal can sometimes create another hazard by disturbing additional lead or allowing lead to migrate. Also, the cost for removal can be as high as $16 per foot, whereas the cost of encapsulation is only about $3.10 per foot."

Hazmats Has-Beens

By correctly identifying potentially dangerous materials - both seen and unseen - and being careful and conscientious about the use, storage, and disposal of them, the residents and staff members of co-ops and condos can benefit from the products while avoiding accidents. And being smart about how we use chemicals and other harsh materials has implications in the broader scope as well; The way we act now has a direct effect on the future of our immediate environment. How many times have you seen someone toss out a can of paint or paint thinner that was not quite empty because there was too little left to be of use in their next project? How many times have you done that yourself? That little bit has to go somewhere, and coupled with your neighbors' "little bit" and so on"¦it adds up.

The bottom line is to use common sense when dealing with hazmats. When questions and or potential emergencies arise, contact 311. From there you will be connected with either the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) or the DSNY and receive further instructions from the appropriate agency. When in doubt exercise caution, and it can keep you and those around you out of harms way.

David Garry is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.

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