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Summary Article: Toxic Wastes
from Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste

Toxic waste is a liquid, solid, or sludge that can cause fatality or serious permanent bodily damage to humans or animals at low doses. When released into the air, water, or land, toxic wastes pose a long-term risk to health and environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines four major types of hazardous wastes: F, K, P, and U. The F list includes wastes from various industrial sources, such as spent solvent and waste byproducts from wood preserving, metal production, petroleum refinery wastewater treatment sludge, and multisource leachate. The K list emphasizes the most common sources of waste, including pharmaceuticals manufacturing, petroleum refining, iron and steel production, wood preservation, and manufacturing of explosives and chemicals. The P list and the U list include commercial chemical products that are hazardous when they are discarded, such as commercial chemical products and container and spill residues. The P list chemicals are acute hazardous wastes and those on the U list are defined simply as toxic wastes. The EPA categorizes toxic wastes that are mixed with radioactive waste (wastes originating from the production of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons) as its own category of waste.

The EPA relies on scientific evidence when defining the harm and toxicity of particular substances, although toxicity and risk are debated among scholars, government officials, businesses that created the waste, workers in factories producing the waste, and citizens living near toxic sites. Often, environmental activists define particular chemicals or sites as toxic before government officials. Sometimes government officials, citing the need to wait for clear scientific evidence, have been initially reluctant to define particular sites or toxins as hazardous or toxic. The amount of government funds given for cleanup and the definitional thresholds for waste, hazardous waste, and toxic waste vary with political administration. For example, in November 2010, the Obama administration announced that it was pushing tougher EPA regulations that would force cleanup of thousands of formerly ignored dioxin sites across the country. The difference between legal waste, hazardous waste, and toxic waste often is less a matter of objective measurement of risk and more a matter of historical and political perspective.

Common Toxics

A common toxic waste is low-toxicity waste (for example, leaded soil). This type of waste is unlikely to migrate and thus it is placed under the ground, hard coverings are placed around it, and it is used for public, commercial, or industrial purposes, such as parks, athletic fields, or shopping malls. EPA statistics from the National Toxics Inventory show that this is one of the fastest-growing types of toxic waste.

A worker in a hazardous-material (hazmat) suit sprays a toxic sealant on a concrete wall during construction. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must wait on clear scientific data before categorizing a toxic waste from an industrial or common source or from a commercial chemical product. In the meantime, the risk posed by these substances is debated among scholars, government officials, environmental activists, companies creating the substances, and citizen who live near toxic sites.

DDT was discovered in 1939 and is one of the best-known synthetic pesticides. It controlled malaria during World War II and was subsequently used as a popular commercial and agricultural insecticide. Some claim that DDT is not toxic, while others note carcinogenic or lethal properties. DDT was central to Rachel Carson's 1962 Silent Spring, a book that helped motivate the modern environmental movement.

Another common toxic is dioxin. Dioxins are byproducts of industrial processes, including chemical manufacturing, chlorine bleaching of pulp and paper, smelting, and cigarette smoke. Dioxin is also released through incineration of hazardous waste, municipal solid waste, medical waste, and sewage sludge. Dioxins exist primarily in fatty tissues and take at least eight years to be metabolized, so even small exposures may eventually reach dangerous levels. The EPA reports that dioxins are a probable carcinogen, but notes that noncancer effects (such as reproduction, sexual development, nervous system, and immune system malfunctions) may pose an even greater threat to human health.

Businesses that produce dioxin by-products, such as Dow Chemical, DuPont, and Monsanto, typically argue that dioxin is not toxic, sometimes in response to lawsuits from plant workers and those living near plants. Dioxin exposures caused large-scale evacuations, such as in the Niagara Falls neighborhood of Love Canal and the town of Times Beach, Missouri. The U.S. military used dioxin in an herbicide campaign during the Vietnam War. Dioxin contamination may have occurred at the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City.

Responding to Toxic Wastes

As stakeholders in the community cleanup process, scientists, citizens, and activists demand accountability. By implementing legislation to remediate toxic sites, the government protects citizens. By producing everyday chemicals, companies that produce toxic waste make society more efficient. The stakeholders’ competing interests create a social situation likely to induce toxic controversies.

Emergence of a Social Problem

In the United States, the danger of toxic waste existed long before public understanding about the danger of toxic waste. In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government increased environmentally focused legislation, but the development of an enforced anti-toxics policy did not happen until the 1970s. The coordinated reaction to toxic waste was not due to a spike in exposure to toxic wastes but rather was the outcome of a widespread public understanding about their risks. This public understanding was created largely through heightened environmental activism, which often is attributed to a book about the dangers of toxics.

In 1962, American biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a scientific account of how widespread use of DDT was causing environmental damage. Carson provided scientific evidence about DDT's environmental dangers and wrote rhetorically and speculatively about future dangers, exemplified in the book's image of a dead river. The book sparked years of debate among scientists, producers in the chemical industry, users in the agricultural industry, government officials, and environmental activists.

Added to this new politicized awareness was a catalyzing moment that was distributed around the country in newspapers and television programs: a river in Ohio was so polluted with toxic sludge that it caught fire. The combination of this surprising image and the sensitivity from the Silent Spring controversy created a great opportunity seized by the environmental movement in 1970 to create Earth Day and to push legislators to create the EPA.


From 1964 until 1992, the U.S. oil company Texaco contaminated waterways in Ecuador by dumping billions of gallons of toxic sludge. Texaco abandoned nearly 1,000 toxic waste pits throughout the region, filled with crude and sludge that—plaintiffs claim—continues to seep into the groundwater. In the 1990s, after spending just $40 million, the polluter received a release of environmental liability from the Ecuadorian government. In a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of Amazonian villagers who claim that the sludge was poisoning the groundwater, an Ecuadorian court could impose a legal penalty of up to $28 billion to be paid for by Chevron, the owner of Texaco.

September 11

Since 2001, at least half of the 9,000 9/11 first responders have reported respiratory problems. In the days and weeks after the attack, the EPA tested for only a few toxins and erroneously said the air was safe. Activists and journalists discovered that there were many chemicals for which there were no government safety limits. There were also government reports confirming that the White House shaped EPA press releases by convincing the EPA to add reassuring statements and to delete cautionary ones.

First responders who were told the air was safe fear that they are facing long-term health problems and thus have joined lawsuits against the city and against the group that owned the World Trade Center; settlement offers were $712.5 million, and $47.5 million, respectively. As of November 2010, the offers were not yet accepted by enough plaintiffs to be validated by the courts. Many plaintiffs complained that the amounts were not even close to covering their medical costs.

Government officials, scientists, and activists disagree about the distance the toxins traveled, and some citizens in nearby cities worry that their homes, schools, and workplaces are contaminated with toxic dust. As of 2010, the U.S. Congress is considering more economic support to clean nearby communities and to pay the medical bills and lost wages of exposed citizens.


During the Vietnam War, between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. military sprayed millions of gallons of chemical herbicides (such as Agent Blue and Agent Orange) in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The goal was to deprive enemy armies of crops and cover and to force them into the cities. Millions of acres of land were made unusable, and in some cases, the concentration of the toxics was far greater than legally allowed.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were maimed, killed, or suffered birth defects from exposure. Birth defects can be deformities of the face or body, extra limbs or appendages, and mental disabilities. Skin and genetic diseases and cancers still emerge anew in exposed populations. Similar conditions are reported by Vietnam veterans who delivered and stored the chemicals and also by others who served on bases or missions where the defoliant was used.

Once home, Vietnam veterans suspected that personal health problems, miscarriages, and birth defects their families were experiencing were due to exposure to Agent Orange. Exposed veterans with health problems associated with exposure are assumed to have contracted the problems through exposure and are provided with medical coverage for symptoms through government disability payments. In 1984, a class-action suit on behalf of exposed veterans against the chemical producers was settled out of court for $180 million. Many veterans were angry about the low amounts of payment they received. Monsanto continued to claim that Agent Orange did not cause serious long-term injury. The United States (through presidential, congressional, and EPA action) continues to measure and clean Vietnamese toxic sites.


On December 3, 1984, tons of toxic gas escaped from an insecticide plant in India that was owned by the U.S. firm Union Carbide. The toxic gas quickly spread over neighborhoods around the plant, killing 15,000-20,000 people. Soil and water contamination are blamed for continuing sicknesses among hundreds of thousands of survivors, including respiratory problems, eye irritation, blindness, birth defects, and other ailments. Plaintiffs claim that the company cut corners in both the creation and running of the plant and that they had poor contingency plans in case of disaster.

In early 2006, Indian activists began a hunger strike. In response to these protests and pressure in the courts, the Indian government agreed to fully clean the site as well as to provide fresh drinking water for local residents. In June 2010, eight former senior employees of Union Carbide's Indian subsidiary were convicted in an Indian court of “death by negligence.” The former employees faced up to two years in prison. The Indian government unsuccessfully requested U.S. extradition of the former CEO of Union Carbide.

New Wastes

New toxics are not only objectively produced but are also dependent on societal and government acknowledgment that a well-known chemical is toxic. One example is drinking-water contamination from farming industries. Activists and journalists suggest that birth defects in the community may be tied to toxics like the pesticide atrazine, which is common in drinking water—especially in agricultural communities. Some activists and journalists claim this evidence demonstrates that the system of water purification in U.S. cities is insufficient for removing new chemical wastes and that the EPA has insufficient measurement and regulation of new wastes. Although atrazine is highly regulated in Europe, in the United States and many other countries around the world, atrazine is a common—and largely unregulated—herbicide. Some scientific reports suggest that atrazine causes birth defects, endocrine damage, and cancer, but after extensive scientific testing of 100 atrazine-exposed community water supplies, the EPA concluded that there was no threat to the population.

International Trade

Because disposals of toxic and radioactive wastes are so expensive in highly regulated industrialized nations, there is a lucrative trade in the transportation of toxic wastes to countries where regulations are limited and disposal is relatively cheap. Businesses sometimes seek to save money by exporting the toxic waste. Because the monetary offers can rival their country's annual gross domestic product (GDP), governments of developing nations often think they must accept the money. In one case, U.S. smelting firms sent their waste to Bangladesh, where it was used as fertilizer. In another case, Congolese officials were accused of receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks for receiving one million tons of toxic waste. Some Somali pirates have cited the international toxic waste trade as a rationale for their violence; for example, in 2008, one group demanded $8 million for years of dumping toxic waste in their coastal waters.

Some evidence suggests that trade deregulation such as the North American Free Trade Agreement encouraged increased international trade in toxic waste. Still, many poorer countries will not accept toxic waste from more developed countries. Barges filled with toxic waste travel the world looking for dumping places, often without success. In one infamous case, a toxic load from the United States was accidentally dumped in the ocean after being turned away from ports around the world for several years. Recycling is big business, and U.S. waste companies can increase profits by avoiding expensive U.S. regulations and selling toxic products, such as computers, to unethical recycling companies that export the toxic waste to countries with lax regulation.

Regulation of international toxic waste typically respects the sovereignty of receiving nations. The 1989 Basel Convention is an international treaty that states that toxic waste shall not be exported either without notice or without permission of the receiving nation, depending on the circumstances. Critics suggest that this did little more than encourage careful recording of toxic trade between exporting and importing nations. Some people suggest that the international trade in toxic waste provides poorer countries needed economic resources, while others suggest that it results in richer people displacing environmental costs onto poorer people. The latter argument is sometimes extended to issues of race: toxic waste trade is usually from white countries to non-white countries, thus suggesting environmental racism on an international scale.

Environmental Racism

Like other environmental harms, there is a correlation between toxic waste sites and race. The challenge for scholars is to isolate the causal relation between exposure to toxic waste and race. In many cases, scholars have been able to show causality, while other studies suggest that other variables (such as community income, industrial base, or geography) have proven more important than race.

The EPA acknowledges that environmental racism has been an unintended pattern in exposure to toxic waste. Recent analyses have shown that the U.S. military tended to place the most dangerous testing sites in rural areas, and that these areas happen to be much closer to Native American communities than to other ethnic communities. Other analyses show a general concentration of municipal toxic waste sites in communities with large numbers of ethnic minorities.

Some of the most visible examples of toxic exposure have had disproportionate influence on minority communities. In Pennsylvannia, there is a majority-black county that is overwhelmingly African American and also houses a disproportionate number of polluting industries. In Chicago, the predominantly African American Altgeld Gardens community housing project was built on top of an abandoned landfill and was surrounded by pollutants such as heavy metals, DDT, and PCBs. Similar stories of toxic siting in poor, minority communities occurred in Houston, Texas; Institute, West Virginia; Alsen, Louisiana; and Buttonwillow, California. There are many other examples throughout the United States.

While the causal link between toxic sites and racial communities is tentative, the correlation between the two is well documented. Whether race is the cause is beside the point; the real harm is the unequal distribution of negative environmental consequences.

Love Canal

The Love Canal disaster is often called the “worst toxic waste disaster in U.S. history.” The New York neighborhood within Niagara Falls was built around an abandoned canal where, in the two decades following World War II, the Hooker chemical and plastics plant dumped toxics, including tens of thousands of tons of carcinogens such as PCBs and dioxin. After the company closed and the land was deemed safe, it was given to the city of Niagara Falls, which used it for new neighborhoods. In 1978, journalists began writing stories about the history of the neighborhood, and citizen-activists pressured state officials to address concerns that they may be living on top of a toxic waste site. Some residents began reporting seepage of toxic waste into their basements.

Lois Gibbs, a Love Canal housewife and mother of a child with lung problems and epilepsy, believed that her son's illnesses were due to his playing at the school playground. She began to petition to have the school closed, and in the process of going door-to-door around her community, she learned that many of her neighbors also suffered from unexplained illnesses and birth defects. She enlisted support from neighbors, and they presented their findings and signatures to state health officials, who responded by closing the school and suggesting that all pregnant women leave the area. About a week later, President Jimmy Carter declared the area around the school an emergency area, a declaration that helped allocate funds for relocation of homes near the school.

The EPA and government officials, following scientific uncertainty, were reluctant at first to acknowledge the full harm posed by the toxic site. In early 1980, tensions rose when the EPA finally admitted that the Love Canal residents were exposed to carcinogens such as dioxin; the report also said that residents may have contracted chromosomal damage. Angered at years of inaction by the federal government, Love Canal activists took two EPA officials hostage. The hostages were released without harm, but Lois Gibbs gained national media attention for the cause. Gibbs then appeared on national television talk shows and described the struggle as a presidential campaign issue. Carter agreed to set up a fund to clean up other toxic waste sites around the country. This became known as the Superfund.

Regulatory Responses to Toxic Waste

Concerns over dangers posed by toxic wastes have spurred regulatory approaches in several industrialized nations. The widest global agreement on toxins is the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. The Basel Convention is intended to regulate the trade and dumping of toxic wastes across international boundaries, but it lacks enforcement provisions for trafficking in illegal hazardous waste. It was opened for signature in 1989 and, as of the end of 2010, had 175 member nations throughout the world (the United States was one of the few nations that had not signed the agreement). In 1994, the parties of the Basel Convention agreed to the Basel Convention Ban Amendment, immediately banning (without enforcement provisions) the export of hazardous wastes from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to non-OECD countries.

Within the European Union, Council Directive 91/689/EEC, on December 12, 1991, set controls on hazardous waste management, specifically, requirements related to traceability, forbidding the mixing of hazardous waste with other waste, and the obligation to inform the commission of waste that has hazardous properties but is not listed as such. That directive was replaced on December 12, 2010, with Directive 2008/98/EC of the European Parliament and the European Council (passed November 19, 2008). This directive establishes a legal framework for the treatment of waste within the European Community. It aims at protecting the environment and human health and provides guidelines to member states that they establish practices to store and treat dangerous waste in conditions that ensure the protection of health and the environment.

Within the United States, the major regulatory tools are the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, commonly called the Superfund) and brown-field programs. Enacted in 1980, CERCLA provides a regulatory mechanism in response to threats from abandoned, accidentally spilled, and illegally dumped hazardous wastes. Through penalties and taxes on hazardous substances, CERCLA provides funding and guidance for cleaning up abandoned sites. CERCLA directs the EPA to analyze, prioritize, and oversee remediation of toxic waste sites, even when the responsible party is unknown or unwilling to pay for cleanup. The program officially seeks widespread participation by the public through stakeholder meetings, but the stark contrast between participation and power is noted by many stakeholders who challenge government authority.

The EPA established the Brownfields Program in 1995. The EPA defines a brownfield as a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. The agency estimates that more than 450,000 such sites exist in the United States. The program began with the EPA providing seed money for a variety of two-year pilot programs at the state and local levels and was expanded under Public Law 107-118 (H.R. 2869), the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act. The act, passed in 2001, provides relief for some small businesses from Superfund liability and, alternately, provides financial assistance for the cleanup and reuse of brownfields. As of September 2010, the EPA claimed that its Brownfields Program had leveraged more than $14 billion in brownfields cleanup and redevelopment funding from the private and public sectors and leveraged approximately 60,917 jobs.

The fastest-growing program is CERCLA's redevelopment initiative in which Superfund sites are developed into airports, shopping malls, sports fields, and wildlife refuges. While redevelopment has cost much more time and money than simple cleanup of past Superfund sites, it has increased community and business involvement. Environmental activists question the safety of cleanup methods—especially incineration and redevelopment. Environmental activists protesting Superfund sites have also focused on the lack of accountability and transparency. In late 2009 and early 2010, new EPA policies promised to increase transparency in Superfund cleanups.

At the 25th anniversary of the Superfund, construction work had been completed at 966 sites, or 62 percent, and work had begun at an additional 422 sites, for a total of 1,388 sites on the National Priorities List. By the beginning of 2010, 1,320 toxic waste sites were on the National Priorities List. Despite decades of measuring and responding to toxic waste by governments, scientists, activists, and citizens, toxic waste remains a pervasive part of modern life.

See Also:

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA/Superfund), Environmental Justice, Love Canal, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Sociology of Waste

Further Readings
  • Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. (Accessed January 2011).
  • Bullard, Robert Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
  • Environmental Protection Agency. “Brownfields and Land Revitalization.” (Accessed January 2011).
  • Europa. “Directive on Waste.” (Accessed January 2011).
  • Hird, John A. Superfund: The Political Economy of Environmental Risk. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
  • O'Neill, Kate The Environment and International Relations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Pellow, David Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.
  • Kubal, Timothy
    California State University, Fresno California State University, Fresno
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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