Recently, a waste chemical drum stored in the Pittsburg crime lab developed a leak pouring methanol and chloroform all over the basement floor.1 The two solvents used regularly by the crime lab were collected in a 55-gallon drum. The drum was ready for disposal but started leaking over a weekend. Strong odors greeted employees Monday morning and the building was quickly evacuated and a contractor brought in to clean up the spill. Fortunately, the vapors did not reach an ignition source before detection.
In another incident, after a late night and hours of work in an organic chemistry lab, a graduate student finished up his experiments, dutifully collected his waste, and added it to the waste container in the hood. He sealed the container and left for the evening. Unfortunately, a few hours later, in the very early morning, the one-gallon amber glass bottle decided to increase its entropy and scattered itself and its contents all over the hood and laboratory. Fortunately, no one was in the lab when the minor explosion took place so only the hood and the lab were damaged.
What happened? We all recognize the first incident was a case of storing waste solvents in a container in poor condition. The second episode involved mixing incompatible wastes. But why did they happen? And, how do we prevent these occurrences?
This month the Safety Guys provide an introduction and overview of hazardous waste handling in a typical forensic laboratory. Our focus will be on hazardous chemical wastes, as these are the main culprits when it comes to accidents like the ones described above. However, proper management of chemical waste is not only important for safety but also for financial health since serious fines and penalties are possible if they are not handled according to regulations. We will touch on the federal regulations, present a model program for chemical waste management, and discuss satellite accumulation areas. Our hope is that this will start a discussion leading to in-depth follow up articles on topics that you, our readers, are interested in.
A look back to the beginning
The federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976 initiated our having to deal with hazardous chemical wastes. With this Act Congress mandated that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) develop regulations for treatment, storage, and disposal of all hazardous wastes. The goal was to keep these harmful wastes out of the environment and curtail illegal disposal. This law put in place a record-keeping and tracking system to follow hazardous wastes from “cradle to grave,” that is from the moment the waste is generated to its final disposal.
RCRA defines those wastes which are hazardous, i.e. those that must be tracked, and specifies the manifest system to do this. The details are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 40 Protection of the Environment, parts 260 to 265.2 Essentially, a waste record or manifest is developed by the generator of the waste and passed to the shipper or transporter and finally to the disposal facility. The manifest is checked and signed by each entity and after final disposal the completed manifest is returned to the generator documenting the proper “cradle to grave” management.