Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#22 - Ash From Trash Incinerators Is Laced With Toxic Heavy Metals; Could Be Defined As 'Hazardous', 26-Apr-1987

The ash from municipal solid waste (MSW) incinerators contains very
high levels of toxic metals, according to a study by the Environmental
Defense Fund (EDF), a traditional environmental group based in New York

The study provides fuel for a heated debate occurring now in
Washington, DC, where federal officials are trying to decide whether to
define MSW incinerator ash as a "hazardous waste" or not. If MSW
incinerator ash is defined as a hazardous waste, its disposal will be
expensive; if it is not defined as a hazardous waste, its disposal will
remain cheap. The financial feasibility of incinerating MSW will be
heavily impacted by the decision.

Incinerating MSW looks like an extremely lucrative technology and large
firms, such as Westinghouse, and pushing their way into the business in
hopes of making a killing.

The EDF study shows that MSW incinerator ash contains "very high
levels" of lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury, all of which are toxic
metals. EDF gathered data from the federal Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA), from five state governments, and from two private firms.
The data represented Extraction Procedure (EP) tests conducted on ash
resulting from the incineration of municipal solid waste. The EP
toxicity test is an official EPA test used to determine whether a
substance is legally definable as a "hazardous waste" or not under the
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

MSW ash has two components: it is 10% fly ash and 90% bottom ash. EDF
found that "all available results from the testing of MSW incinerator
ash indicate the routine presence of very high levels of several toxic
metals." Specifically, EDF found that lead and cadmium levels in the
fly ash portion of MSW often exceed the limits required for
classification of the waste as "hazardous" under Subtitle C of RCRA.

EDF has sent its results with a letter to over 100 MSW incinerator
owners/operators, urging them to have EP toxicity tests conducted on
their ash residues. EDF will gather the results from these tests, if
results are released by the owners/operators, and will issue another

For further information, contact Michael Herz, Environmental Defense
Fund, 257 Park Avenue South, NY, NY 10010; phone: (212) 686-4191.

--Peter Montague



Most hazardous waste in the U.S. is placed in unlined surface
impoundments that put no barrier between the waste and the nation's
ground water, says the Congressional Research Service (an arm of the
U.S. Congress). This despite 10 years of effort by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA has not only failed to control the waste problem, it has even
failed to define the size of the problem clearly. The EPA has tried
nine times since 1973 to estimate the amount of hazardous waste being
produced annually by U.S. industries. Here are EPA's nine estimates:

"In short," says the Congressional Research Service (CRS), "it cannot
be said with any confidence how much hazardous waste is being generated
in the United States. Perhaps more important," says CRS, "lacking time
series data using a consistent methodology, it is not known whether the
amount is increasing or decreasing."

Why is it important to know how much waste is being created each year?
First, because we need to know how much waste management capacity the
nation needs; and second, we can't tell whether "waste reduction" is
occurring if we don't know how much waste is being produced this year
compared to last year. Careful measurement of the waste problem is an
absolute requirement of any waste reduction plan or program.

For further information on these subjects, see James E. McCarthy and
Mark E. Anthony Reisch, HAZARDOUS WASTE FACT BOOK [87-56 ENR]
(Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, Jan., 1987). Free from
Mr. McCarthy at: (202) 287-7225.

--Peter Montague



A California state agency has issued a free report outlining waste
management strategies that industry can use to reduce the amount of
hazardous waste sent to landfills. The report evaluates source
reduction (reducing wastes at the source, or not producing wastes in
the first place), recycling and reuse, and waste treatment.

The report notes that source reduction is the "ideal solution" but may
prove costly to implement because it may involve big changes in
industry. The next-best solution is recycling, but the report says the
market for recycled materials may be poor because of competition from
low-cost raw materials. Waste treatment has a lot of potential, the
report says, but it can sometimes cause pollution of air, land and

The report--third in a series--contains a section on waste management
strategies and another section summarizing available methods for
treatment of landfill leachate, contaminated groundwater, and
contaminated soil at hazardous waste sites.

Alternative Technology Section, Toxic Substances Control Division,
California Department of Health Services, PO Box 942732, Sacramento, CA
94234; phone (916) 324- 1807.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: hazardous waste; landfilling; groundwater;
congressional research service; epa; waste production statistics;
studies; surface impoundments; misfeasance; ash; msw; incineration;
studies; edf; federal; hazardous waste; toxic waste; epa; toxicity;
rcra; cadmium; lead; ep toxicity test; alternative disposal