Don’t Touch That: Identifying Hazardous Waste in the Aftermath of a Disaster

Disasters do not end once all falls quiet. The aftermath of a disaster carries its own unique dangers.

Different types of hazardous waste can pose serious health risks to anybody in the area, including the cleanup crew. If you plan to enter the scene, you need special equipment and knowledge about the hazards you might encounter.

Hazardous Waste

On the scene, you will encounter a host of hazards. Knowing hazardous waste characteristics will keep you and your crew safe. Keep reading to learn more about hazardous waste and how to identify it.

What is Hazardous Waste?

A simple hazardous waste definition classifies material that poses a risk to the environment and/or humans as such. Specific identifying qualities will tell you how to classify the material you encounter prior to the debris removal.

Is This Waste Hazardous?

The EPA’s Hazardous Waste Identification Process serves to help you classify waste as hazardous or not. To identify waste, answer:

  • Is it a solid waste?
  • Do RCRA regulations specifically exclude this waste?
  • Do the regulations list this waste as hazardous?
  • Does it possess characteristics of hazardous waste?

Read the EPA’s guidelines for classifications and listings to clearly identify waste.

Most Common Types of Hazardous Waste

What kind of waste can you expect on the scene? These are the most common hazardous wastes found on a disaster scene.


We use batteries regularly. They seem harmless enough that we even place them into children’s toys and allow older kids to switch them out of their own electronics.

However, inside that casing, batteries contain sulfuric acid, lead, lithium, cadmium, alkaline, and mercury. When disaster strikes and batteries end up mixed with other debris, the casing can break or dissolve, leaking these highly toxic materials into the environment.

Since commonly used everywhere, you may find batteries on any type of disaster scene. They require detection and proper disposal.

Compressed Tanks

Compressed gasses pose a major risk following a disaster. Certain gasses can ignite or spread a fire. When you compress these same gasses, they turn into potential explosives on a disaster scene.

You may find compression tanks anywhere from industrial buildings to hospitals. Different types of commonly compressed gasses include acetylene, propane, and oxygen.

Organic Solvents

Any industrial building most likely contains organic cleaning solvents. Restaurants, hospitals, schools, and any other place containing a kitchen will possess degreasing solvents.

These solvents typically contain toxic constituents that remove grease, fats, oils, wax or soil from various metal, glass, or plastic items. Ingredients may include ketones, alcohols, chlorinated hydrocarbons, and petroleum distillates.

If not taken care of immediately, these solvents can leak into the surroundings. This may contaminate soil and groundwater, creating a larger environmental problem.


Any industrial building that stores pesticides contain hazardous waste after a disaster. The same compounds that kill off pests can potentially create health problems for exposed humans.

They can create skin rashes, eye irritation, and respiratory problems if leaked into the environment. In the long term, certain pesticides are also linked to cancer.

Recover Safely from the Disaster

Knowing how to characterize debris and the common types of hazardous waste to look for following a disaster can help keep you safe. Do not increase the impact of the disaster by going into the building blindly.

We want to ensure safety for you and the environment. Check out our services to help you through any disaster that hits.


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