Walter Wells bought a large container of hydrochloric acid, available over the counter in hardware stores and hobby shops, to remove paint and other stains from the walkway of his Veazey Street home in Northwest Washington. Then the 64-year-old fire safety engineer realized that runoff from the highly corrosive acid would likely kill his flower beds and burn his lawn, so he opted instead to live with a less than pristine sidewalk.
That was nearly five years ago, and Wells says he is uncomfortable that the unopened hydrochloric acid is still stored in his basement.
"I have this stuff in my house and it's a hazard," he said. "If there were an agency that would collect it, I'd avail myself of that service, but there isn't."
Wells is not alone in his dilemma. Containers of leftover pesticides, paints and cleaning solvents are piling up in basements and garages in the Washington area as well as the rest of the country, and no one knows what to do with them. Kept at home, they pose fire hazards and endanger children; when tossed into the garbage and carted to the local dump, they can combine with other decomposing toxic materials to form an even more hazardous chemical brew and pollute water supplies.
State and federal officials say there are no studied estimates of how much hazardous waste is generated in the average American home. But in Florida, the one state that has collected hazardous wastes in some counties from individuals, people turned in an average of 50 to 60 pounds of waste per household.
Few jurisdictions -- none in the Washington area -- offer homeowners a safe way to dispose of hazardous household waste. Local officials say they are not prepared to accept the potentially tremendous financial responsibility imposed by federal laws that make those who collect the waste responsible for its safe disposal and for any environmental problems it may cause in the future.
At the same time, the federal law governing the storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous wastes specifically exempts the waste found in the nation's 84 million households. Congress, currently grappling with improvements to that law, known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RECRA), has made no effort to address household waste. Even Environmental Protection Agency officials acknowledge there is a problem.
"People can throw just about anything in the trash, and we can't do anything about it," says Janet Luffy, a spokesman in the agency's Philadelphia office for Region III, which includes Maryland, Virginia and the District.
Without federal guidelines, local officials are helpless when homeowners such as Wells ask how to safely dispose of hazardous leftovers.
"We have neither the authority nor the ability to help people. We're caught in a Catch-22 between a poorly thought out law and what's really needed," says Louis Peltier, an environmental planner with Montgomery County. "What really bothers me is I get these calls saying, 'What do I do with this?' . . . I can't tell them."
Washington-area officials are beginning to address the waste problem. Last month, the energy committee of the area Council of Governments, which includes the District and 15 local governments in Maryland and Virginia, met for the first time to discuss household waste. And in August, a task force appointed by Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes issued a report calling for a state-run and state-funded program to collect hazardous wastes from residents, patterned after the effort in Florida.
COG discussions so far have leaned toward a regional approach, according to Rose Crenca, a Montgomery County council member who attended the recent meeting, in order to pool expenses and assure that federal disposal laws and those of the three jurisdictions are not violated.
"We all pour hazardous waste down the drain or put it in the trash. In small quantities it's all right, but the cumulative impact of lots of people in a congested area presents a real problem," said Crenca.
When Crenca moved into her Flower Avenue house in Silver Spring in 1957, she found eight or 10 cardboard boxes of copper sulfide and other chemicals used by the previous owner for hobbies including photography and metal-working. Crenca, who was then a high school biology teacher, said she realized the chemicals needed special handling so she took them to the fire department. Crenca was lucky to get such help because fire departments are not equipped to take care of chemical wastes on a regular basis.
"The big concern . . . is water," said Alan Bergston, chief of solid waste management for Montgomery County. "Throwing out pesticides, cleaners, spray cans, the more of these things in even trace amounts that you remove from the waste stream, the better protection you afford the environment."
To catch seepage of what Bergston calls "little nasties" from household trash, groundwater monitoring well networks encircle the defunct county dump on Gude Drive in Rockville. Officials also are considering designing a similar safety net of wells around the old Beantown dump near Gude Drive, an area that has been developed into an industrial park.
At the county's multimillion dollar Laytonsville sanitary landfill, and at most newer dumps nationwide, such monitoring networks are incorporated into the design. Water is routinely tested for a set of pollutants that are harbingers of larger contamination problems, said Raymond Dever, environmental engineer for Montgomery. Still, local officials agree with Bergston, that the surest way to prevent chemical water contamination is to remove hazardous wastes from trash before they reach the dump.
Federal law attempts to track hazardous substances from the time they are considered waste, or their "cradle," to their ultimate disposal, or "grave," through a complex system of manifests and licenses. But state and local environmental officials say that system sets up a financial and bureaucratic blockade for homeowners seeking to safely dispose of leftover hazardous products.
Montgomery environmental officials hit that barrier last spring when they told state health department officials of their plans for an "amnesty day" on which county residents could bring wastes such as small bags of pesticides, old cans of paint and paint thinners and darkroom chemicals to a drop-off station.
State officials warned Montgomery officials that according to the federal law that set up the Superfund to finance hazardous waste cleanup, the county would have to accept liability as the generator of the waste, said David Sobers, director of environmental planning for the county. The Superfund law makes those who produce waste responsible for clean-up costs.
Unwilling to accept responsibility that could lead to millions of dollars in clean-up costs if the waste were improperly handled, Montgomery backed off.
"Liability costs can be enormous," said Ron Nelson, director of solid waste management for Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "Homeowner waste is exempt under RECRA. It does not become a hazardous waste in the eyes of the law until it's consolidated. Then the collector becomes the generator."
Nonetheless, Florida lawmakers last year voted to take "cradle-to-grave" responsibility for collecting hazardous household wastes in order to protect the state's fragile underground drinking water supplies. In a series of amnesty days in seven of the 67 counties,, the state spent $550,000 to collect tons of waste in southern Florida and the Tampa Bay area. Among the hazardous substances homeowners and farmers turned in were 25,000 pounds of pesticides, including 3,000 pounds of the banned pesticide DDT, and 45,000 pounds of solvents and PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a lubricant banned after laboratory tests linked it to cancer and other illnesses. Florida is scheduled to expand the program.
In addition, an estimated 27 counties or cities from Cape Cod to Alaska are setting up similar programs, according to Gina Purin, an environmental health planner with Golden Empire Health Systems Agency, a nonprofit health planning organization in Sacramento. Purin is coordinating a national survey of how such local programs work, which she said will be published this month in a booklet that tells local governments how to manage amnesty days.
"The liability question is one that some local governments are quite leary of. Some of them, quite frankly, are using it as an excuse not to start a program," Purin says. "But what's the responsibility of having it in somebody's home or having somebody pour it down the drain? The responsibility of cleaning it up is far greater down the road than of preventing it."
In Maryland, Virginia and the District, the family that finds old sacks of DDT in the basement of a newly purchased house is literally left holding the bag.
Most trash from District residents is carted to Virginia's I-95 Energy Resource Recovery Facility near Lorton for disposal. Virginia health officials are "listening to what's being discussed," says Patrick Grover, a state solid waste manager in Richmond. In the meantime, Grover said, Virginia residents are subject to the same disposal laws as industries.
"It's to the benefit of Jane Doe and the rest of the public to be regulated, that's how we feel. It prevents them from going out and dumping it in the backyard," Grover said.
Maryland's Nelson said the tough approach in Virginia and the lack of options in the District probably will encourage residents there to bring hazardous waste across state lines if Maryland lawmakers act quickly next year to follow task force recommendations with legislation to set up amnesty days.
Short of checking driver's licenses, there is no way to avoid it, Nelson said. Other potential problems include cost, safety and finding places to send hard-to-dispose-of-waste.
"It's a dangerous procedure when you've got homeowners standing in line holding hazardous materials," he said. "What if one guy has a can of cyanide and the guy right behind him has three gallons of hydrochloric acid? They bump into each other and you've got hydrogen cyanide -- that's the stuff they use to knock people off in the gas chamber. And what if someone showed up with 12 bags of insecticide contaminated with dioxin? There's no place to put that."