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Bad Chemistry : One Bathroom May Contain Enough Toxins to Pollute Santa Monica Bay

April 10, 1988|JACK SMITH

OUR PROFLIGATE technology now threatens to make inadvertent criminals of us all.

Except for a few traffic tickets, I have managed to live within the law most of my life, but now, I find, I am harboring toxic wastes.

Possession itself is not a crime. It isn't illegal to own toxic wastes. They can't search your house and bust you if they find a can of spot remover. But it's illegal to get rid of them.

Does that not sound like our society's ultimate dilemma?

We are bombarded by ads for chemicals that will kill bugs, make our nails glow, wave our hair, improve our hearing, brighten our toilet bowls, clean our rugs, polish our floors, make us smell good and purify our swimming pools.

Our shelves and cabinets are crammed with potentially dangerous products that we find necessary to sustain our glossy, aromatic life style. The Times recently published a list of these hazardous materials, along with the warning that "they cannot be disposed of in the ordinary trash."

Toxic wastes, it said, can be disposed of only in dumps licensed to receive them. The Catch-22 is that there are no such dumps in Los Angeles County.

If you want to get rid of such stuff, you have to take it to specified dumps in Santa Barbara and Kings counties, which will take a maximum of 50 pounds of it and won't take pesticides.

Toxic-waste pickups would soon be arranged in certain neighborhoods, it said. Meanwhile, we were advised, we would have to use up such products, give them away or store them securely in their original containers.

While granting that the contamination of underground water supplies by heedlessly dumped toxics is a serious danger, Gordon Bicknell writes that the list of contraband materials "is ridiculous in the extreme."

He is especially incensed by the listing of hearing-aid batteries. "Is a senior citizen to be charged with a crime for throwing a hearing-aid battery into the rubbish? A wonderful story for 'People's Court' or 'L.A. Law.' How would Judge Wapner handle this one?

"The story possibilities are unlimited. In preparation for their 50th-anniversary party, the groom replaces his hearing-aid battery, and his bride indulges herself by doing her fingernails. They carelessly toss the dead battery and nail-polish remover into the rubbish. Subsequently, they are charged with the crime. Ignorance of the law is no excuse . . . ."

He wonders whether searching a resident's rubbish without a warrant for evidence of a crime is an invasion of privacy and a violation of personal rights. Will our neighbors' children watch our rubbish cans for discarded toxics and notify the police?

Those scenarios seem farfetched. But Bicknell reminds us of the notorious garbage barge that left Long Island last year and spent five months at sea in a melancholy search for a city that would accept its cargo and turn it into methane fuel. Finally, the load was incinerated in Brooklyn and dumped back on Long Island as ash.

I wonder what that barge's skipper thought as he plied between the East Coast and Mexico, Belize and the Bahamas, facing one rejection after another. He and his barge were symbolic, it seems to me, of a problem that can only get worse: What do we do with our trash?

I am aghast at what I find under our kitchen sink. Among other dubious compounds, we have carpet spray, oven cleaner, insect repellent, ant and roach killer, concentrated de-greaser, flea shampoo, spot lifter, root destroyer, lighter fuel and mothballs.

I have not explored my wife's bathroom, since that is sacrosanct. But I have an idea she has a collection of chemicals poison enough to pollute Santa Monica Bay by itself.

Like Pandora, we have opened our magic box, expecting to find hope in it, but instead we have released a plethora of monstrous evils.

Toxic wastes constitute only a tenth of 1% of the 45,000 tons of waste dumped daily in Los Angeles County. I wonder whether that includes only the trash officially picked up or if it also includes the tons of litter discarded on our sidewalks.

It has often been suggested that we solve the problem by shooting our waste into space. If we do, there goes the neighborhood.

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