Monday, September 5, 2011

Suddenly Faced with Toxic Waste

A suburban greenmom comes face to face with nasty toxic chemicals

I don't use scary chemical cleaners. They just aren't in my house. There's no bottle of Clorox under the sink, no ammonia, no pesticides or commercial drain cleaners.

It wasn't until yesterday that it occurred to me it might be a good idea, however, to know what those chemicals are, what they can do, how to safely dispose of them, and what might happen if one doesn't do it safely. Because they might not be in my home, but that doesn't mean I can necessarily avoid them forever.

My husband's parents passed away last year within about six months of each other, both in the latter part of their eighties. They had this big old two-flat house in the city, which is now ours to clear out and prepare for a hopefully quick sale. (They have neighbors who have been interested in it for years, so I am hoping that part might go smoothly.) The problem is that they were depression-era packrats who never threw anything away. Ever. If there was any faint possibility that it might someday be useful, they kept it. Did you ever wonder who actually ate the dozens of packets of saltine crackers in the basket at the restaurant? My mother-in-law brought them home. Those charities who send you, unrequested, piles of "free" greeting cards in the hope that it will guilt you into donating money to them? We could have opened a card shop with all the cards we found. The house was packed, full basement to full attic, with stuff that we are trying to clear out. A painful amount of garbage is bagged and taken out to the alley every single time we go there to work (and this weekend we are there every day, happy Labor Day, sigh), and I'm waiting for the day when the Goodwill Donation Center will see us coming, lock the doors, shut off the lights, and pretend they aren't home because they are so sick of us.

So yesterday I'm busy cleaning and packing away the crystal in boxes, going back and forth between the kitchen and dining room. My husband finds a half-empty bottle of liquid ammonia and decides to dump it down the sink before throwing the bottle away, so he turns on the water, dumps the toxic stuff down the sink, and leaves the room. I walked into the kitchen about two seconds later, went straight to the sink, and did that thing I do so often: I inhaled.

Inhaling concentrated ammonia fumes feels like something very sci-fi robo-evil. Even I, a woman who lives for metaphor, have absolutely nothing to offer as to what it feels like. Just...avoid doing it. Bad. Very very very very bad. (My husband and I finally started speaking again about midnight last night.)

But the whole thing got me to thinking...I don't use the stuff, and as a result I really don't know what to do with it, how to dispose of it, or what to do from a first aid standpoint if I do come into contact with it. Smartphones are a good thing, of course, and that's where I looked stuff up, but if my initial instinct to go outdoors for fresh air hadn't been the right one, I wouldn't have known. (Ammonia, as it turns out, is one of those things that doesn't accumulate in the system; go out and breathe new good stuff in and you'll probably be okay. Asthmatics need to watch out a little more, and ammonia mixed with bleach is another story all together and is really bad, but I am fine.)

So I did some reading, and some finding of websites, and (of course) there's a lot out there, some of which will be very helpful to us once we get to the under-sink area of the kitchen with tons more toxic waste.

(The first, of course, it to read the damn bottle to see if it has any suggestions for safe disposal. Are you reading this, honey?)

Planet Green is probably the best place to start--they have tons of good links. That's where I found out about, which enables one to find a local hazmat disposal place to take the icky stuff. That's how I found the Chicago area location and guidelines. There's a pretty good list put out by New Mexico State U with specific guidelines for different Toxic Nasty Ickies. And of course the EPA has a fairly straightforward site I've bookmarked for future use, or at least until Michele Bachman is elected President and makes it go away permanently. If that happens, we'll have plenty more to worry about beyond what to do with the solvents under the sink.

Knowing off the top of one's head that Poison Control is 1-800-222-1222 is also not a bad idea. They seem to be staffed by some fairly intelligent individuals. I've had reason to call them a significant number of times since the first time I caught my now-first-grader biting the top off a glass nail polish bottle and sitting there with glittery lacquer all over her lips. (God, just typing that makes my blood run cold again. Still have no idea how she got to it in the 30 seconds my eyes were off her.)

So now we're heading back out for the day. Another few hours stirring up 30 years of dust and generating garbage, breathing the heaviness of air that hasn't been free to circulate with the outdoors in about that same amount of time, pulling aside vinyl curtains to let some actual sunlight in...because one way or the other, it has to get done.

And tonight, back home, where the tub is cleaned with baking soda and castile soap and the counters with lemon-infused vinegar, we have grass-fed beef hot dogs and free range chicken in the fridge, home grown tomatoes on the counter, local corn and watermelon, and organic whole wheat buns waiting to be dressed with the relish I canned and some lettuce picked from my late-harvest garden. We'll eat, we'll breathe, we'll cleanse. We'll enjoy the holiday and one another's company, assuming my husband and I are speaking at the end of the day this time.

I'll be looking forward to it.

Happy Labor Day, all!
--Jenn the Greenmom


Anonymous said...

I'm so with you except in the next six months I'll begin the cleaning process. My teens found out on their last visit that my dad has DDT in his barn. Sigh.

Good luck on the sorting, dusting, and remembering lives.

Alicia@ eco friendly homemaking said...

What a great post! I was sorry to hear about your in-laws but hope that the house sells quickly for you all. So many people have no idea what is in the cleaning products or really any of the products that they use. You are so right in that it is so simple just read the label!!

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Well, after yesterday, ammonia doesn't seem so bad--my MIL had a bottle of CHLOROFORM in her nightstand cabinet. I didn't even know exactly what it was, much less that anyone just kind of kept it around in the house, it's the stuff I've only read about in detective novels and places like that. THAT is a serious disposal issue.



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