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Your Health and the Environment: Protecting Your Piece of the Planet

WebMD Feature provided in collaboration with Healthy Child Healthy World

Think your home is pretty green? Maybe it is. But take a look at the darker corners of your basement, garage, and backyard shed. You'll likely find a miniature toxic waste dump, getting larger by the year.

Americans generate more than 1.5 million tons of hazardous household waste every year. Anything that has a label with the word poison, danger, warning, or caution is considered hazardous household waste and all of them pose potential risks to your health and the environment. If your home is like most, you could easily have 100 pounds of toxic junk lurking in the basement, garage, and closets.

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When it's time for the next cleaning (spring or otherwise), do it in a way that makes your home and the environment safer, says Kathy Shay, water quality education manager for Austin, Texas and its Grow Green program. "Your home has its own environmental protection agency, and it's you," says Shay. "There are dozens of ways you can go a little greener at home that are simple, but also powerful."

Go Green: Plan, Don't Just Pitch It

In a garage overpopulated by cans of crusty paint, sludged oil, half-full pesticide sprayers, and cemented caulk tubes, the solution can seem easy. Put them down the storm drain or into the trash bin -- anything to be rid of the stuff.

Experts warn against ever pouring suspect chemicals down the drain, into storm sewers, or backyard dirt. "A single can of oil can travel through acres of soil," says Paul McRandle, deputy editor for National Geographic's Green Guide. "And water treatment plants aren't set up to process petrochemicals. They end up in the water, in the fish -- and eventually back on your plate."

What you can do:

  • Call your local sanitation department and ask about hazardous household waste disposal. Some communities have a pick-up day. You may need to bring the products in to a central location. 
  • Get rid of your toxic leftovers by giving them to someone else. Post "free paint" (or cleaning products, wood stain, or glue) to neighborhood bulletin boards, or online at Craigslist or Freecycle. 
  • Return used motor oil to your local garage.

Getting rid of your old appliances and electronics requires a little planning, too. Many refrigerators and freezers need to have their ozone-depleting cooling units disconnected before safe disposal. Computers and cell phones contain components that are hazardous, but often recyclable.

What you can do:

  • Ask your sanitation department about any appliance you're throwing away.
  • Talk to your local electronics retailer about taking back your item for reuse or recycling. Look for a retailer who participates in EPA's Plug-In to eCycling program.

Cut Emissions, Not Just the Grass

Conventional lawn care has huge environmental costs: in gas and oil, pesticides, water consumption, and fertilizer runoff. You can have a beautiful lawn without giving the environment a black eye. Here are a few simple tips:

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