Having just passed the halfway point of my internship, my outlook of the Integrated Chemistry Management (ICM) Program has changed. Initially, I was outraged at the blatant waste of resources spent on chemicals. Some schools had so many chemicals that they didn’t need to purchase any for another ten years. Outrage became acceptance, then resignation. The current school system enables a lack of accountability, knowledge and guidance with respect to chemical management, safety, disposal and protocol.
One school that stood out was Billerica High School. There a chemistry teacher explained that when she first came to the school there were many unknown and spent chemicals, which would be stored in a separate storage area. When teachers don’t know what to do with a chemical, they keep it. This trend carries on due to lack of accountability and oversight leading to an accumulation of RCRA hazardous waste and nonhazardous waste. She further shared that a new facility is being built in three years and that funding was allocated to ensure that the new chemistry labs and storage spaces meet current standards. Timing wise, it was best that Billerica reorganize their chemistry labs before moving to the new facility to avoid transporting old, banned and spent chemicals there.
The school may be the oldest I’ve visited so far this summer. The chemistry laboratories were quite grimy and there was an excess of everything from chemicals to glassware to over the counter products, materials and apparatus. It had lots of RCRA hazardous waste and banned apparatus including 60 mercury thermometers. Consolidating compounds and separating waste from remaining chemicals allowed me to make a number of observations and think about the work I’ve been doing this summer. I noticed that some of the most dangerous chemicals are the prettiest. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) lists a number of transition and heavy metals (metalloids), concentrated acids and bases, and alcohols as hazardous. They fall under the categories of corrosive, ignitable, toxic and reactive. All nitrate salts are considered RCRA hazardous waste because they are oxidizing agents. Chromium nitrate is an oxidizer and toxic. Other hazardous but colorful chemicals include copper sulfate (blue), cobalt chloride (pink), iron oxide (orange), potassium dichromate (orange), potassium chromate (yellow) and so on.
The responsibility of disposing RCRA hazardous waste lies with the manufacturer. However, some chemicals are so old that companies have merged or were bought over the years. For instance Welch Chemical Company became Seargent Welch, and eventually their packaging transitioned from glass to mainly plastic. In order for Billerica to dispose of their unwanted chemicals they will have to bring in a hazardous waste company. I hope our efforts will help chemistry teachers there to reduce or halt their spending on chemicals for a number of years, and increase safety within the classrooms.
To learn more about RCRA visit: https://www.epa.gov/rcra/resource-conservation-and-recovery-act-rcra-overview and the ICM program visit: http://www.umassk12.net/maillist/msg00362.html