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Chemical Wastes — they ruin the Earth and poison our water!

Too few realize the tragedies just ahead if chemical wastes continue to be dumped into the earth.
Even fewer realize the spiritual dimensions of the problem.


MOST of us do not live close to chemical waste dumps. But those wastes can poison us anyway. We still drink water.

Half the American population takes its water supply from the ground. Yet groundwater is extremely vulnerable to pollution. Chemical wastes that seep into ground water supplies can pollute it for decades.

Groundwater is far harder to cleanse than surface water. Once contaminated, it is not exposed to such factors as sunlight and motion, which clean surface water. Yet many chemical waste dumps are near, or even on top of, under-ground water supplies.

Certainly chemical waste represents a terrible health hazard today. And it also represents something profound about the spiritual state of the world today.

Slimy, Toxic, Hazardous, and Deadly

The sludge dumped into chemical waste sites is some of the most deadly stuff ever manufactured.

One chemical sometimes found at waste dumps is C-56. It is a by-product of making the insecticide Mirex. The chemical was once considered for use as nerve gas — but was rejected because it was too deadly! Another substance associated with chemical warfare, dioxin, has also been found at chemical dump sites.

Still another chemical is acridine, found in the waste of synthetic fuel processes. When exposed to acridine, newborn crickets emerge with extra heads, eyes and antennae. And the list includes PCB, an incredibly toxic substance, which has been buried at various landfills and dump sites in quantities reaching about 300,000 tons. Some estimates are that 60,000 tons have already found their way into the water supply.

The fumes alone of some of these waste chemicals are so deadly that dumpers themselves have been known to be overcome by their fumes when they discharge their cargo. Air samples near dump sites in Southern California turn up chemicals known to cause cancer, or damage the liver, lungs or nervous system.

Chemical wastes also pack considerable explosive power. Sludge may be composed of a dozen substances — which together combine with unknown effects. As one state environmental official said speaking of the probability of a major explosion at a local dump, "if [that dump] ever goes up, I warn you to be nowhere near New York City, with all the unidentified chemicals in that mess. We just have no idea what might be the synergistic effect of the chemicals in the smoke that would spew out of there."

In Elizabeth, New Jersey, when a chemical dump did catch fire and blow up, nearby residents came down with symptoms of chemical poisoning.

And chemicals have been known to explode with little disturbance. A fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico was killed when a drum of waste that he hauled up in his net exploded. In West Virginia, the ground exploded when workers were digging near a manufacturing plant.


Sludge Mountains

Each day, enough industrial waste is produced to fill the New Orleans Superdome from floor to ceiling, according to estimates based on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) figures. Almost every type of manufacturer produces some kind of hazardous waste. Gasoline refining, plastics, batteries, tanning, even the clothing industries produce waste on an immense scale — 36 million tons annually.

The chemical industry, as you would expect, produces the largest amount of toxic waste. The industry has enjoyed immense growth since World War II. Production and use of chemicals has increased 100 times during those years. New chemicals are produced at the rate of 1,000 a year.

"We generate a . . . lot of [chemical waste] in this country, stuff we eventually have to put in the ground," notes a vice president of the Chemical Manufacturers' Association.

Chemical dumps are altogether too likely to be on top of the local water supply or near populated areas. There are (no one knows for sure) somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 industrial dump sites in the United States alone. This is in addition to another 40,000 sites used for sewage and solid wastes from cities and towns. For its part the EPA has listed close to 32,000 sites that could contain "hazardous" waste.

The estimates are uncertain because past dumping practices have been so haphazard that no one can be sure just where all the toxic wastes are buried! Some recent disclosures of hazardous dump sites came about accidentally. In one case evidence came out during the course of a legal tangle unrelated to pollution.

For decades the world has dumped chemicals so carelessly as to be, in one writer's phrase, "beyond belief." Many sites went for years with very little attention. Some of the sites have been covered over.”People can be living in a gorgeous, beautiful area and be totally unaware of the dangers underneath their feet," declares one EPA administrator.

In the heady days after World War II, people believed in the slogan, "Better living through chemicals." Manufacturers did not realize at that time that they were dumping substances that could find their way into the local water supply, or combine with other elements to become hazardous. In some cases, in the words of one investigator, the companies "just pour[ed] 'em out on the ground. Glub, glub, glub."

Today, for example, rivers and lakes in western Michigan are polluted from dumps created decades ago. An average of half a ton of toxic wastes has seeped into White Lake every day for years from an underground stream polluted by a dump site. Yet when the dump site was created, it was created in accord with the standard, legal practices of the day! The same is true for other sites across the United States.

Of course, those practices today seem like the height of irresponsibility: workers would take 55-gallon drums, turn them on end, chop holes in them, fill them with the residue from insecticide making, put them on trucks, haul them to a dump and push them off. This slipshod process allowed some of the residues to spill on the ground. And, by not sealing the dump (with clay, for example), toxic wastes ate their way out of the sides of the drums, and then into the ground and water supply. But back in the 1940s and 1950s, the simple burial seemed good enough.

Yet once waste is improperly buried, it sometimes becomes even more dangerous to disturb it! At least part of the tragedy at Love Canal, for example, stems from later construction in the waste disposal area, which allowed wastes to seep out of the canal itself (see accompanying story). In another instance, at a dump in Edison, New Jersey, a bulldozer driver hit a container of flammable chemicals. It exploded and the man died with hand still on the gearshift.

In effect, the site itself may become a time bomb. Ten, even 30 years, later, disaster strikes. In Triana, Alabama, production of DDT was halted more than a decade ago. Yet 4,000 tons remain undumped on the bottom of a near-by stream. Residents of Triana today carry about 10 times the "normal" amount of DDT in their bodies.

In New York, in the area around Bethpage and Farmingdale, dumped chromium from war factories during the 1940s now contaminates drinking water. Writes Jimmy Breslin, "Children are in danger of being poisoned by the same war that their grandfathers fought and won."