Hazardous waste carries environmental risks and also health risks for humans and wildlife. Some pollutants such as mercury can accumulate in human and animal tissue, thus compounding their effects. Hazardous waste is primarily generated by industry and businesses. Although regulations exist, contamination still occurs. In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recorded 23 million cases of voluntary disclosure of pollution risks and opened 387 environmental criminal cases. As long as threats remain, health effects of hazardous waste will continue to occur.
American farmers apply more than 300 million pounds of pesticides to farmlands each year. Of the 27 most commonly used pesticides, the EPA has classified 15 of them as carcinogens or cancer-causing agents. Cancer has also been linked to air pollution from industry as well as in the home. Radon, for example, is a radioactive by-product of uranium decay. Uranium is found within the Earth’s crust and is everywhere in the environment. Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer according to the National Cancer Institute.
A direct link exists between air pollution and respiratory conditions such as asthma. Exposure to hazardous waste from emissions irritates the mucous membranes of your mouth and throat. A 2008 study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences found that individuals merely living near a hazardous waste site had an increased risk of developing respiratory diseases.
The risks of living near hazardous waste sites do not stop with increased risk for respiratory disease. A 2004 study published in the Archives of Environmental Health found an elevated risk of the development of congenital heart disease in the offspring of pregnant women living within one mile of a hazardous waste site. The threat is also more innocuous. Auto emissions also carry an increased risk of heart attack and stroke from thickening of arteries. Fossil-fuel emissions contain several toxins considered non-specific hazardous waste by the EPA. A non-specific hazardous waste is one without a readily identifiable source.
The health effects from some types of hazardous waste may be temporary, with no link to other conditions having been determined. Xylene, for example, is one of the most widely used chemicals in the United States. It is an ingredient found in paints, solvents, and varnishes. Although not considered a carcinogen, exposure to the chemical causes dizziness and headaches. A person may also experience stomach discomfort. At high levels, xylene may cause unconsciousness and even death.