The chemical in question is a nasty “emerging contaminant” known as 1,4-Dioxane and it’s produced in large quantities by DAK Americas, as a byproduct of the plastics production process. A lot of 1,4-Dioxane (disturbingly enough) is simply released by DAK and other manufacturers into various corners of the natural environment like the Cape Fear River.
In the instance in question, however, the pollution release took place in a different way. By all indications, DAK shipped large quantities of 1,4-Dioxane-contaminated sludge to a composting outfit known as McGill Environmental.
A test performed by an independent lab on a sample of the sludge obtained by Policy Watch found “a [1,4-Dioxane] concentration of 20,400 parts per billion, higher than levels the EPA has found at some hazardous waste landfills.”
Clearly, the notion that such a dangerous substance was being combined with other “feedstock” (the industry term for the various substances like peanut shells, poultry manure, hog waste, sheet rock, wood and treated sewage sludge) that goes into making compost – a product we think of as organic and that regularly comes into contact with humans – is of grave concern.
What’s of even greater concern, however, is the startling fact that there really isn’t any meaningful bar to such action. As Sorg reported, 1,4-Dioxane is essentially unregulated despite the compound’s known threats to human health and the environment. Indeed, the story notes that “composters don’t have to test for 1,4-Dioxane or any emerging contaminants. And industrial plants don’t have to disclose to the composters if those compounds are present in the material they’re sending.”
As a practical matter, Sorg reports, DAK and McGill are on what amounts to an honor system when it comes to policing the contents of the compost that ultimately blankets parks and playgrounds across our state.
And while Sorg’s intrepid journalism has apparently prodded North Carolina regulators to investigate the situation (the Department of Environmental Quality says it “has been in contact with DAK Americas”), it seems certain that: a) a lack of regulatory resources and standards would have prevented anything of the kind from ever happening without Sorg’s reporting and, b) there must be scores of similar stories out there of which no one in a position of authority is aware.
The bottom line: when it comes to saving humans from the countless environmental threats they have inflicted on themselves and their fragile and finite planet, it’s clear that no amount of altruistic voluntarism or technological innovation is going to get the job done. Right now, like it or not, we need vastly stronger environmental regulations on the books and dramatically increased numbers of regulators to enforce them.
The evidence could, quite literally, be right there in our own backyards.