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Earth, wind, (water), and fire: How hazardous waste impacts the elements, our environment, and our health

A woman in her garage reads the label on a tube of caulk

Earth, wind, and fire are more than just a legendary band. They are core elements of our planet. But let’s not forget another element, a beloved Pacific Northwest favorite: water. Together, earth, wind, fire, and water are also key routes for hazardous waste to enter our region’s natural systems and impact our people, wildlife, and environment. 

Understanding the many methods of hazardous waste exposure is one part of the process of managing hazardous waste. This understanding helps the Haz Waste Program collectively support residents and businesses in disposing and managing their own hazardous waste, mapping our services back to the bigger picture – achieving King County-wide goals for a more resilient, sustainable, equitable region. 

With Earth Month and Earth Day (April 22) on our minds this month, we’re taking a look at ways you might be exposed to hazardous waste by what’s around you and under your feet – the earth and its elements. Let’s dive in. 

Earth: Hazardous waste entering soils can make dirt even dirtier

Despite its name, “dirt” isn’t always dirty. In fact, healthy soil and compost can be key parts of a thriving garden or yard rooted in natural yard care practices. But when hazardous materials are improperly stored or disposed, harmful chemicals may leach out and contaminate the dirt and soil in our environment, allowing chemicals that do not break down easily to linger and expose people, increasing risks of negative health outcomes.  

Many chemicals that easily leak into soils are in garden, yard, and household products we use to keep our spaces beautiful and clean. Common sources of soil contamination include chemical pesticides, herbicides, non-organic fertilizers, and chemicals used in dry cleaning. 

  • Haz Waste Tip: Check out our Natural Yard Care tips for building healthy soil in your garden or yard. And if you’re looking to dispose of soil containing chemicals or hazardous materials, follow our special instructions for disposing of contaminated soil in King County. 

Wind: Haz waste's effects can decrease our air quality 

There’s not much a nice breeze can’t solve. But, breezes around Puget Sound and King County may not be as refreshing if hazardous materials enter and build up in the air.
Common hazardous materials that lower our regional air quality include diesel emissions from vehicles, chemical emissions from industrial facilities, as well as fragrances in many everyday items, including laundry products and home cleaning products. 

  • Haz Waste Tip: Fragrances are very common in many products we use every day, especially cleaning products. If possible, we recommend using fragrance-free products for your cleaning and laundry purposes or learning more about ways to reduce fragrances’ impact on your health

Fire: Haz waste furthers fire risks

Hazardous materials such as improperly disposed batteries play a significant role in sparking fires at landfills and waste management facilities. In turn, the fires caused by these hazardous materials may further emit toxins into the air surrounding these facilities.

Explosions and air pollution from fires caused by improperly disposed hazardous materials only add pollution to an existing problem for many communities. Hazardous waste left behind after disasters like wildfires break out can also prolong rebuilding efforts following those natural disasters. 

  • Haz Waste Tip: Follow best practices for disposing of your batteries, including taping both ends to prevent fires and finding the best location to drop them off.

Water: Weakening the waterways where we drink and swim

Hazardous materials like fertilizers, chemical herbicides, and pesticides can leak into our soils, where they are washed through rain cycles into our groundwater, rivers, lakes, and other waterways. 
The flow of hazardous materials into our region’s waters make life tougher for iconic wildlife, from salmon to seals to orcas. Polluted waters also threaten the health of people - often in neighborhoods and communities already heavily impacted by hazardous waste – who may rely on those waterways for food, irrigation, and drinking water.

Looking ahead: Managing hazardous waste and addressing inequities

No matter the source of exposure - whether by way earth, wind, water, or fire - hazardous materials enter and impact our environments and regional systems, affecting everyone. 
The Haz Waste Program’s work starts with understanding exposures to hazardous waste, especially among communities impacted most by hazardous waste. This work continues as we push to protect the health of our region’s people and environment every day.

The Haz Waste Program works to reduce exposures to hazardous materials for all those who live, work, learn, and play in King County by supporting upstream policy changes, cultivating partnerships, and providing prevention and collection services and support. 

Throughout all of this work, we also strive to improve health and environmental outcomes by using an anti-racism framework to better understand the underlying causes and barriers faced in communities that experience a greater risk of exposure.

By partnering on the ground with communities and tailoring our approaches to hazardous waste collection, prevention, and education to the specific needs of those individual communities, we aim to help reduce the risk of harmful exposures across King County, especially for those most impacted by hazardous waste.

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