In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hazardous Waste

  • Introduction
  • Historical Overviews
  • Toxic Exposures
  • Environmental Justice
  • Trade Export

Environmental Science Hazardous Waste
Matthias Beck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0088


Within the Western world, evidence of awareness of hazardous wastes dates back to antiquity, with Athenian law requiring that certain wastes be carried a distance outside city walls. Similarly, Roman authorities regulated the disposal of various waste products, usually requiring these to be disposed of outside urban centers. Similar legislative interventions are documented for Asian societies, again mostly in relation to densely populated areas. Although European cities of the 14th and 15th centuries created rudimentary regulatory frameworks, primarily in relation to potentially harmful biowastes, these interventions were frequently ignored to the level where, for many, city life was characterized by squalor and disease. These problems were amplified when industrialization caused mass migration to urban areas. The mid-19th century saw the creation of public health movements that encouraged the creation of dedicated institutions, such as London’s Metropolitan Commission of Sewers in 1848, headed by Sir Edwin Chadwick, and the Massachusetts State Board of Health in 1869. Moreover, legislative intervention such as the UK Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Consolidation and Amendment Act of 1855 attempted to restrict pollution of the River Thames but proved largely ineffective due to a lack of enforcement mechanisms. In parallel with the focus on public health, increased attention to occupational illness began highlighting the fact that industrial processes frequently produced hazardous and toxic by-products. Overall, there is evidence that early interventions with regard to hazardous waste focused primarily on air and water pollution, while land disposal was largely unregulated. The start of modern hazardous waste regulation is associated with research into industrial pollutants, which was conducted largely after the Second World War and led, among other developments, to the creation of a sixty-four-chemical Priority Pollutant list by the US Environmental Protection Agency. This had been preceded by the influential 1960 MIT study on land disposal, commissioned by the US Housing Authority, which highlighted the extent of hazardous waste contamination from industrial landfill, together with the unsatisfactory state of knowledge with regard to permissible concentrations of contaminants in groundwater, migration of contaminants, the attenuation provided by soils, and the ability to predict contamination. This and similar reports created the background to the creation of national legislative frameworks for hazardous waste management, including the federal Waste Disposal Act of 1972 in Germany, the Control of Pollution Act of 1974 in the United Kingdom, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 in the United States, the Waste Substances Act of 1977 in The Netherlands, and the 1995 European Union directive on waste. Following a growth in the movement of waste to less developed countries, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal of 1989 sought to regulate these movements, while the associated 1996 protocol aimed to prohibit the dumping of toxic waste at sea.

Historical Overviews

Although the study of environmental regulation and policymaking around hazardous waste is still underdeveloped, there are a number of relevant academic contributions that focus on the tensions arising around this issue in different environmental and political contexts. Many of these works, such as Shifrin 2014, Smith 2000, Wagner 2004, and Tarr 1996 focus on US experiences. Nonetheless, there is now an emerging literature, exemplified here by Selin and VanDeveer 2006, that looks at European policy developments and experiences. Studies exploring the recent history of environmental policymaking around toxic waste in central and eastern Europe are relatively rare, though works such as Peterson 1993 provide a useful account of environmental contamination during the Soviet period. Lastly, Little 2014 provides unique insights into the making of hazardous wastes in modern industry via a study of IBM’s main US factory.

  • Little, D. 2014. Toxic town: IBM, pollution, and industrial risks. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814760697.001.0001

    This book traces the history and effects of high-tech pollution by focusing on the experiences of residents of Endicott, New York, which had become the location of IBM’s first factory in 1924.

  • Peterson, D. J. 1993. Troubled lands: The legacy of Soviet environmental destruction. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    An account of the effects of toxic contamination in former Soviet states, discussing failures in environmental policy in these regions.

  • Selin, H., and S. D. VanDeveer. 2006. Raising global standards: Hazardous substances and e-waste management in the European Union. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 48.10: 6–18.

    This brief article discusses the evolution of the European framework for waste management toward a greater recognition of the harmful nature of waste exports.

  • Shifrin, N. 2014. Environmental perspectives: A brief overview of selected topics. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-06278-5

    This useful book touches on a number of topics in relation to environmental pollution, with chapter 2 providing an insightful account of the evolution of US environmental policy on hazardous waste.

  • Smith, J. K. 2000. Turning silk purses into sows’ ears: Environmental history and the chemical industry. Enterprise and Society 1.4: 785–812.

    DOI: 10.1093/es/1.4.785

    This article examines how US chemical companies, pollution experts, and government agencies defined the problems of pollution prior to the introduction of federal regulation.

  • Tarr, J. A. 1996. The search for the ultimate sink: Urban pollution in historical perspective. Akron, OH: Univ. of Akron Press.

    Focusing on US cities, this insightful book explores the interaction of technical solutions to waste disposal with social and political factors.

  • Wagner, T. 2004. Hazardous waste: Evolution of a national environmental problem. Journal of Policy History 16.4: 306–331.

    DOI: 10.1353/jph.2004.0024

    A US-centered paper that investigates the evolution of hazardous waste into a national environmental problem in the late 1970s, with a focus on factors that explain its delayed recognition.

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