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Sustainability Plan / Hazardous Materials / Introduction

 There are currently more than 50,000 different chemicals in common use in the United States. Roughly 1,000 others are added each year. The presence of this enormous variety of hazardous materials in everyday life is a new phenomenon which began only 50 years ago following the technical developments of World War II. Familiar hazardous materials include gasoline, household and industrial cleaners, disinfectants such as pool chlorine, and home and garden pesticides. Hazardous materials fall into one of four categories: products which burn (“ignitable”); products which immediately damage living tissue (“corrosive”); products which can release great energy when combined with water, air or other products (“reactive”); and products which can cause other immediate or long-term health problems (“toxic”). Hazardous wastes are unusable or unwanted hazardous materials. Contaminated soil and other materials from cleanup of contaminated sites may also be considered hazardous waste.

Human exposure to once-common hazardous materials such as lead in paint and asbestos in construction fireproofing is now known to be directly linked to poor health and early death. Hazardous material contamination of housing is a significant problem which affects children and other specific population groups. Many other common practices from the past and present continue to have both known and unknown effects on human health and the environment. In addition, San Francisco has numerous abandoned or underutilized properties in both industrial and residential areas, which have not been redeveloped due to concerns about the perceived cost of environmental clean-up. These properties, recently named “brownfields,” are common in older urban areas. The cleanup and restoration of contaminated “brownfield” sites will enable new economic development at the same time that exposure to hazardous materials from these sites is eliminated.

Exposure to hazardous materials is not a risk that occurs in a social vacuum. Many of the items in the following matrix reflect a recognition of the need to prioritize individual, commercial, and governmental activities to achieve the greatest overall reduction of risk. This necessity is based on a realistic view of financial and other resources as well as the variety and relative severity of dangers associated with the past and present use, storage, and disposal of different hazardous materials. In addition, resources dedicated to hazardous material issues must be prioritized along with other risks to the environment, such as vehicle-related air pollution. Finally, risk from hazardous material use must be balanced with other risks to public health and welfare. For example, are limited resources best spent on contaminated-site cleanup or on increasing pre-natal care?

Fundamental to San Francisco’s goal of achieving a sustainable society is the need to ensure that all San Francisco’s communities and segments of population equitably bear the impact of past, present, and future hazardous materials use. Although achieving a sustainable community in which the negative effects of hazardous materials are eliminated is the goal,
the distance yet to be traveled is great. Past management practices for hazardous material and waste have resulted in disproportionate negative effects on communities of low income and communities of color. Members of all communities in San Francisco must be able to share in making decisions regarding the use, storage, cleanup, and disposal of hazardous materials. Success in obtaining representation from all segments of San Francisco’s population depends on investing resources to allow people to participate.

Since the early 1970s, strict federal and state regulations have made it increasingly difficult for commercial and industrial concerns to reduce their costs by disposing of hazardous wastes directly to the environment and at the expense of future generations. Regulation has caused many businesses to reduce and in some cases eliminate their use of hazardous materials and their generation of hazardous waste. San Francisco has made strides in educating individuals about household toxics and alternatives and has provided residents and small businesses with reliable, if limited, access to proper disposal. At the same time,
toxic and other hazardous materials continue to be produced and purchased in enormous quantities. Many find their way into consumer products which crowd most people’s household cabinets and garages. Their use may contaminate air, land, water, and the bodies of people, plants and animals. Achieving a sustainable society will require a vast reduction of the use of chemicals, as society and nature heal from the damage they have already sustained.