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THE GOODS : Toxic Detox : Are paint or other chemicals cluttering up the place? Then consider visiting the HazMobile to get rid of household waste.

July 29, 1994|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The city's new HazMobile rolled into Sunland on a recent Thursday and set up shop on the Kmart parking lot, ready to accept discards of paint, motor oil, pesticides, antifreeze and other toxic substances that lurk in any ordinary kitchen, bathroom or garage.

"The average American home has about 63 different chemicals in it, from mild irritants to nerve gas," says Jackie David, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles City Bureau of Sanitation, which launched the HazMobile program last February.

These are the makings for a major worry to the Sanitation Bureau, she says. Not only are such substances a danger to a household ("One gallon of gas has the explosive power of 33 sticks of dynamite," David points out), they are a danger to sanitation workers and a threat to the environment if illegally dumped.

To address the problem, Los Angeles, like many other cities, has developed various household hazardous waste collection programs, says John Moore, assistant project manager for the HazMobile. The new mobile program augments the one-day roundups launched in 1989 after a door-to-door collection program proved impractical.

At the roundups, one-day collection events held in various parts of the county, residents drive through a collection area and remain in their vehicles while trained workers remove the substances from their trunks.

The roundups have been so popular--attracting up to 1,000 cars a day--that traffic jams and long waits in line are not uncommon. The county is continuing the monthly roundups while the city runs the mobile program, Moore says.

The HazMobile caravan--a truck and three trailers--tours the city on a regular schedule stopping for three-day periods at designated sites that are announced in advance. The caravan goes to 24 locations and may be used by anyone who lives in Los Angeles County. The next stop is the Fairfax District, Thursday through Aug. 6 and Aug. 11-13.

Residents must call the Hotline, (800) 98 TOXIC, to make an appointment and will receive an appointment card for a drive-through, reducing waiting time considerably. The ground rules limit amounts that may be transported and list materials that will not be accepted, including ammunition, explosives, and radioactive and medical waste.

Peter Lee, a city chemist, warns that it's impossible to throw anything toxic away because everything goes somewhere. "Even if you rinse a paintbrush--just a little bit--in the sink, it will show up in the city's water supply," says Lee, who works at the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant.

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The HazMobile is catching on. Calls have steadily increased since it was launched last February, says Peggy Catron, Hotline supervisor. "We're now getting about 600 a day."

Not only do her staffers schedule appointments, they answer questions and offer a free comprehensive booklet with information about household toxics and lists of nontoxic alternatives.

"We're educating people," Catron says. "When I first started this work, I was amazed to learn how many things are hazardous--such as nail polish and makeup."

The HazMobile collection events are run by Greenfield Environmental, a Carlsbad-based company.

"What we do here is set up a temporary waste processing facility," says Greenfield's Frank Sanchez. His staff has spread plastic sheeting over the ground and lined up rows of tables with plastic bins and dozens of barrels to receive household waste. A windsock flutters nearby to determine wind direction in case of a spill.

The Greenfield staff--in industrial protective suits, steel-toed boots, gloves and goggles--looks ready for germ warfare. As each driver pulls up and presents an appointment card, a Greenfield worker removes the toxic load to the appropriate container.

Greenfield Environmental identifies eight main household hazard categories, broken down into 23 sub-categories.

"See the blue bottle? Old windshield cleaner," Sanchez says. If your dog or cat drank it, it would be poisoned. The same with antifreeze, which pets like it because it tastes sweet.

"Some of the things are really bad--pool acid and pool chlorine, for example. Also drain cleaners and toilet bowl cleaners can really cause you problems."

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Some substances change over time as the liquid evaporates, he says. Others can be lethal in combination. "If you mix chlorine bleach and ammonia, you'll generate poisonous chlorine gas. Mix brake fluid and pool chemicals, and they'll ignite."

Although paint and used motor oil comprise the largest volume of waste collected, there are also unusual offerings, Moore says.

"We've gotten 1920s-vintage nitrate movie film that was so flammable we had to call the bomb squad. We've had the cremated remains of a family pet. And the garages of amateur chemists are always interesting."

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