Things that go boom

You’re cleaning out your basement, and you find a small, unmarked bottle with blue crystals ringing the rusty cap, as if something had leaked out.

Don’t touch it: That compound could blow up your house.

A Haywood County realtor found such a bottle recently, while cleaning out a home she had just sold for an elderly woman living in a nursing home. The realtor grew wary when she learned that the woman’s son had once used the basement as a chemistry lab.

She contacted the North Carolina Hazardous Waste Division office in Asheville, where chemist Robin Proctor had the good sense to call in a bomb squad, figuring the crystals were either picric acid or ether — both highly volatile. “When it crystallizes, it goes bang,” she points out.

The bomb squad removed the bottle from the house — very carefully — and placed it in a bomb-proof steel container. They then hauled it to the Buncombe County landfill, where it exploded the moment they attempted a standard test. The little bottle of blue crystals blew the top off the bomb squad’s container — which had, in the past, withstood the explosive force of four sticks of dynamite, says Proctor.

“What if kids had gotten into the empty house and tipped the bottle over? It probably would have leveled that house,” she observes.

And what about the case of a Buncombe County man who recently reported that he had discovered an old barrel of agent orange in his basement? “We have no idea what he was doing with that stuff, but it had to be disposed of properly,” says Buncombe County Hazardous Waste Inspector Denise Ballew.

Or take the case of a woman who called Ballew’s office last fall: The woman had discovered a metal container in the basement of her new home. The label was nearly illegible, except for a faint skull-and-crossbones symbol and the letters ISOCYA. Whatever it was, the container had sprung a leak. She asked Ballew what to do.

“Don’t touch it — I’ll be right over,” Ballew replied, guessing that the compound was isocyanate, a now rarely used pesticide whose leaking vapors could have spread through the woman’s house and poisoned everyone inside.

Even the vapors formed by commonly used cleaning solutions can prove dangerous, especially when such chemicals are mixed to form new compounds. Back when Ballew worked in a restaurant, she recalls, a co-worker thought nothing of combining chlorine and ammonia to tackle a particularly difficult cleaning job. Those two chemicals combine to form chloramine: The resulting fumes overcame the woman with choking and nausea, but an alert Ballew dragged her outside to safety.

And sometimes, such vapors — particularly those associated with painting and staining supplies, she notes — can actually ignite, when exposed to light and/or heat. When a man drove up to the Buncombe County landfill two years ago, his van loaded with nasty stuff that he’d collected, Ballew and crew took one look at the oozing, smelly mess — which had heated up during his 30-minute drive to the landfill — and gently shut the door. With no qualms about looking like they had just stepped out of an X-Files episode, workers donned their hazard suits and masks. “We were going to be careful before we figured out what all that stuff was,” says Ballew.

She also recounts the case of a young man who decided to mix up a few grams of silver fulmonate at home — a compound so volatile when dry that a single spark of static electricity can ignite it. “It’s nine times as explosive as TNT,” says Ballew, noting that no one’s quite sure why the young man was mixing it. Whether he was working on a chemistry experiment (as he claimed) or trying to create a homemade firecracker (as a neighbor speculated), “You’re supposed to keep it wet,” she explains.

But as the young man stirred the solution with a brush, too much water evaporated from it. The mere friction from the brush ignited it, and the resulting explosion mutilated his hands.

Happily, disaster was averted in another incident, in 1994. At a quarterly hazardous-waste-collection day sponsored by Buncombe County, a woman drove up to the landfill, opened her trunk and asked for help in disposing of two pots filled with an unknown substance — which her recently deceased husband, a jeweler, had stored at home for years. It turned out to be hydrogen cyanide, once a routine cleaning solution for jewelry.

Had the woman dumped it at the landfill without telling anyone, the solution could have contaminated the liquid (called leachate) that collects at the bottom of the plastic-lined site. That liquid is treated and released once a month: In this case, it would have cost thousands of dollars to decontaminate the mess. Ballew estimates that the average hazardous-waste cleanup costs taxpayers $1,500 ??Peter, Mw Says Gave New Figure. Right?**. Dealing with the silver fulmonate that remained after the explosion, for example, cost $800 — plus an additional $1,500 to dispose of an old container of solid sodium (another volatile chemical) found on-site.

Fortunately, most cases of household hazardous waste aren’t so, well, hazardous — or as costly to clean up. Leftover paints make up 75 percent of the 20 pounds per year that each American generates, on average, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics, says Ron Townsley, solid-waste specialist at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council. Most of the remaining 25 percent consists of such items as motor oil, nail-polish remover, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, a near-endless variety of household and bathroom cleaners, gasoline, furniture polish, charcoal lighter fluid and car batteries — all of which pose a number of health risks when improperly used, stored or disposed of, says Townsley.

For example, a single gallon of used motor oil — dumped into the Mills River upstream from Buncombe/Henderson’s new drinking-water-treatment plant — would contaminate one million gallons of water, he mentions.

How much of a problem are household hazardous wastes in Buncombe County and the surrounding area? Consider how much material the last three county-sponsored collection days yielded: 80 tons of hazardous wastes — despite the fact that few area residents even participated.

But Buncombe canceled those special collection days — held quarterly until the end of 1995 — because they had cost the county almost $500,000, over a two-year period.

Collecting and disposing of household hazardous wastes can be expensive, concedes Kim Henley, co-chair of the Carolina Recycling Association’s Household Hazardous Waste Council. “But, from the standpoint of public health, can you put a price tag on … safety?”

Across the United States, Americans generate more than 1.8 billion pounds of household hazardous wastes each year. But because they’re created separately, in small amounts, by millions of individual households, they’re not regulated and are difficult to monitor, Henley stresses.

Many residents routinely dump leftover wastes down the drain, bury them, burn them, or pour them in a nearby ditch — unaware of the potential dangers from fumes or the risk of contaminating local streams or wastewater-treatment plants, which aren’t equipped to handle many of these toxins, according to a report by the North Carolina Extension Service.

“We’re trying to find a regional solution,” says Ballew, who serves on a task force studying the feasibility of creating a permanent collection plan for household hazardous wastes in Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe and Madison counties.

In North Carolina, Henley points out, there are 10 permanent collection centers for such wastes — none of them in the western region. In the Research Triangle area, four counties and three cities co-sponsor a regional collection effort: the counties of Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake; the city of Durham; and the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. “Regional efforts aren’t yet common, but … it’s an economical way of setting a goal and doing something for the public good,” says Henley.

Transylvania County Solid Waste Director Will Sagar, however, questions whether people would take advantage of the service. “I’m not downplaying the toxicity of these [household] wastes. But would people in outlying areas drive to a regional collection center?” he wonders.

Townsley estimates that only 2.6 percent of Buncombe residents took part in the collection days.

And Sagar stresses that a cooperative effort among the four counties could take one of two forms: A single, centrally located center; or several smaller, satellite pickup points feeding a regional center. “Those satellite sites would have to have all the safety features that a major collection center would,” he points out.

That means getting the proper permits, building and maintaining storage facilities for the hazardous wastes, and training personnel for the task.

Still, Madison County Solid Waste Director Jim Brown speculates that the four counties could share the resulting costs — for less money than it took to fund Buncombe’s one-day events. The task force is looking for grant support, corporate sponsorships and other souces that could lower the costs still more, he notes.

As for the cost of cleaning up a contaminated leachate in Madison’s landfill — should that ever happen — Brown hesitates. “If [contaminated leachate or other materials] have to be hauled off-site to be treated, we’re talking mega-bucks. We just hope and pray that never happens.”

Proctor, meanwhile, worries that if there’s no regular collection or education effort, “Someone could get hurt.”

In the past two years, local officials and emergency personnel have received more than 600 calls concerning possible exposure to household hazardous wastes, Townsley reports. About 44 percent of those calls involved children under 5, and 20 percent required immediate emergency attention.

“This stuff is out there. It’s being stockpiled — for four years, on average. But there’s no disposal procedure,” Townsley warns.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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