Chemical manufacturing companies played a vital role in the industrial revolution of the modern world. During the past two hundred years many new chemical elements and compounds were discovered and they formed an essential part of our day-to-day life.
Many household items such as plastics, paints, batteries, metallic appliances, pharmaceutical products, petroleum products all contain chemicals directly or indirectly. As a byproduct of all the great developments in the industrial world, there came the problem of environmental pollution due to hazardous chemicals being used in the manufacturing processes. Some of these chemicals, leaked into the environment or ingested by people, can cause death, disease, behavioral abnormalities, cancer, genetic mutation, physiological malfunctions and physical deformations. The cost to plant and animal life can also be high.
Due to the high cost of cleaning up industrial pollution, some companies who spill chemicals into the environment have abandoned their sites leaving behind hazardous waste and polluted soil, water and air.
Nowadays there are numerous environmental protection agencies all over the world, whose job it is to prevent pollution of local and national areas. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is one such group.
In 1979 the EPA estimated that there were thousands of inactive and uncontrolled hazardous waste sites in the country that could pose a serious risk to public health. Chemical spills posed another danger.
Environmental damage resulting from such spills can result in massive death of fish, destruction of wild life, air pollution and loss of livestock by contamination of drinking water. Spills also resulted in loss of life and direct threat to human health from toxicity, fires and explosions.
Some of the examples of environmental damages due to hazardous chemicals are cited below.
1) Love Canal, Niagara falls, New York
Hooker Chemical Company used this Canal during 1940s and 1950s to dump 82 different chemical compounds, 11 of them suspected carcinogens. In 1953 the canal was covered with earth and sold to the city for one dollar. It was a bad buy. Through the 1960s and 70s, residents, whose homes were built above the polluted canal, reported odors and incidents of chemical residues seeping in to their basements and lawns. The contamination caused miscarriages, birth defects, respiratory ailments, and cancer.
2) Bridgeport, New Jersey
In 1977 sparks from a welder torch ignited an accumulation of chemicals including benzene, toluene and PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) at a waste storage facility. Six people died and 35 were hospitalized.
3) Toone, Tennessee (1978-79)
A chemical company dumped pesticide waste into a landfill. Six years after the landfill is closed, the drinking water is found contaminated and the city of Toone is required to provide an alternative water supply to residents living within three miles radius.
4) Riverside, California (1978)
Erosion of the retaining dam for a waste pit threatened eight million gallon torrent of waste materials including DDT (Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane), nickel, lead, chloroform and trichloro ethylene.
In order to deal with the hazardous waste problem, Congress proposed the creation of a "Superfund" - a multi-million dollar federal toxic waste clean-up initiative. On December 11, 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed the new Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) or "Superfund."
The responsibilities of the Superfund program were to:
- Determine the number of sites where potentially significant contamination existed;
- Assess who was responsible for the waste;
- Develop a structure to enforce CERCLA;
- Determine the contaminants and quantities dumped;
- Research where the contaminants were coming from;
- Calculate the actual human exposure to contaminants and the potential health risks; and
- Create technologies to remove or control contaminants.
- Introduce the lesson hazardous chemicals. Ask the students about their knowledge of environmental damage due to hazardous chemicals. Accept any responses and clarify them.
- Briefly explain the role of the EPA and ask them about their knowledge of any industries dealing with hazardous materials. Accept all answers and clarify them.
- Ask students how they would identify hazardous chemicals and the facilities that make them. Hopefully students should come with answers such as "do research" or "refer to books" etc.
- Divide students into small groups of three each. Direct students to the EPA's Cleanup Process page and Appendix A (a pdf version of the Appendix is provided in the materials section of this lesson), an EPA list of hazardous chemicals, their sources and effects on health.
- In small groups have the students answer the following questions.
- What are hazardous chemicals? Write 5 examples
- When did the EPA begin its Superfund program? What were the reasons for its establishment?
- What are the responsibilities of the Superfund program?
- What were the environmental effects of Love Canal tragedy? Who was responsible for the tragedy?
- What are the four important pathways used by Hazard Ranking System (HRS) to score a hazardous site?
- What are the health effects of PCBs?
- What are the sources of mercury contamination? What are its health effects?
- What chemical contaminants are present in dry cleaning agents? What are the potential health effects?
- List five health effects of pesticides?
- Where should you report environmental damage or health effects due to any facility dealing with hazardous chemicals in your neighborhood?
Activity 2 - Role Play
- Divide students into three groups. One group acts as victims of the Love Canal tragedy (residents of the area) and the second group acts as EPA officials, local authorities and political leaders (examples may be mayor of the town, congressmen, senators etc.). The third group acts as the owners of a mid-sized chemical manufacturing plant being sued for millions of dollars for leaking chemicals into the ground. This group knows that if they lose the case, they may be forced to pay out millions and will definitely go bankrupt. If they come up with some less drastic solution, they will be able to stay in business and maybe give the affected individuals some sort of compensation and lead the cleanup effort. However, this scenario, in which they admit to leaking the chemicals, could cost them lost business because of bad publicity.
- Encourage students to volunteer themselves to join anyone of the groups.
The first group will explain their sufferings due to the effect of hazardous waste materials. They will make a case for why it should be cleaned and why they should be compensated. The second group then reacts to their collective tragedy and articulates ways to help and compensate the victims and suggest methods to prevent such accidents from occurring again in the community. The third group tries to come up with the least costly alternative to cleanup.
Each student in the first group can tell fake stories based on the following themes:
- A man who began suffering from asthma after he moved to the area. He can also talk about the frequent asthma attacks of his neighbors.
- A woman experiencing blurred vision.
- A woman explaining her children's seizures and those of the other kids in the neighborhood.
- A man in the neighborhood complaining about unpleasant odors and his burning eyes.
- A woman complaining about birth defects in her children and other kids in the area.
- A woman experiencing several miscarriages in herself and other women in the area.
- A man describing his rare form of cancer.
The second group of students acting as community leaders and authorities can react to the above grievances. Each student in this group can give lectures based on the following themes:
- Mayor can talk about the lawsuit he is filing against the company that dumped the hazardous waste and getting compensation for the victims.
- EPA official can talk about the steps being taken to clean up the site and the precautionary measures to be taken by the public.
- Congressman can talk about rehabilitation and medical care for the victims.
- Senator can talk about the steps taken by the federal government to prevent such accidents in the future.
- Community leaders can talk about an awareness campaign among the residents of the area to report health problems.
The third group represents officials of a mid-sized chemical manufacturing plant, which is being sued for leaking chemicals into the ground. Each student in this group can defend the company by giving fake lectures based on the following themes:
- The chief executive officer of the company can explain the chemical leakage as an accident and not an intentional occurance. The officer may also empathize with the victims of the tragedy.
- The vice president of the company can talk about the help being provided by the facility to the affected people around the area in terms of medical services and monetary benefits.
- The general manager can talk about the recent efforts of the company to clean up the chemical leakage in the surrounding areas.
- The public relations officer can talk about the importance of the company for the area in terms of job creation and economic growth.
- The chief engineer can talk about the new safety equipment being installed in the company to protect the employees and the environment.
- Another public relations officer can talk about publishing a monthly environmental report of the company including air quality, water quality and soil analysis for the awareness of general public.
- The manager can talk about the creation of a new safety committee for the company that includes the representatives of the local communities.
At the end, the teacher can add some final comments based on the progress of the role-play activity. Highlight the positive and negative aspects of the activity and reward them by giving all participants an appropriate grade for their contribution and performance.
- Using the EPA's "Where You Live" website, have students research the environmental quality of their own neighborhood, write up their findings and share them with the class.
- Direct students to the EPA's case study Web site. Have students choose one case from the list of highly polluted sites and write a 500-word news article detailing the events of the community's contamination. Students may use an Internet search engine such as Google to find additional information about the affected community. If possible, have students contact current residents of the site and interview them about the effects of hazardous waste in their community.