During the last 100 years, our basements, garages and tool sheds have become stuffed with chemicals, but they are full of more risks than simply toxic materials. Here are seven of the most dangerous things you may find while cleaning out a house, and a hazardous waste management plan for each.
We’ve turned up Civil War-era pistols, an old German hand grenade, a land mine (it looked like a discus) and a rocket launcher. We’ve uncovered dynamite, which not long ago was a fairly common solution to gophers. We once found a box of C-4 plastic explosive—a souvenir from the Korean War. We took a picture of it and called the police, who sent a bomb squad to remove it.
If you find a gun, always assume it’s loaded. Call someone who is trained and licensed to handle firearms—an off-duty police officer or gun handler from a local gun shop. A gun shop might also send an appraiser and make an offer to buy it. Ammunition may be old and faulty, so it’s best to let a trained handler dispose of it, and be prepared to pay for the service.
2. Drugs and Medical Waste
Every year, 8 million people in the U.S. use more than 3 billion sharps —needles, syringes and lancets—to manage medical conditions at home. You can’t just toss old sharps in the trash. They can poke through bags and stick housekeepers and garbage handlers, causing infections or transmitting diseases. Your hazardous waste management plan should include a community drop-off collection site, such as a doctor’s office, hospital, health clinic, pharmacy or health departments.
For other medical waste, such as colostomy bags, bloody bandages and the like, it’s best call the local health department to ask about proper disposal measures. It may even be illegal to send certain hazardous items to the landfill.
Leftover prescription medication, especially narcotics and other controlled substances, require a special hazardous waste management plan. Pharmacies sometimes charge to accept old prescriptions. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) hosts an annual National Take-Back Initiative for prescription medication disposal.
3. Human Waste
We have a home-cleanout rule of thumb: If it looks like apple juice, it’s not. We find mason jars and old bottles of urine in basements and garages, where Grandpa didn’t have a toilet. Solid waste can potentially spread disease or cause infection. Another rule of thumb: If it fits in a toilet, flush it. For larger volumes, it’s best to call a professional, such as Stericycle.
4. Dead Animals
In some localities, owners are legally required to have deceased pets cremated instead of burying them. One state might consider a deceased dog simply trash, while another might label it hazardous waste and require a special management plan. If there’s any question, call the local authorities.
5. Child Pornography
In many houses we find Grandpa’s old girlie magazines. But what if Grandpa was into something more serious? Adult porn is legal, but child porn is not. Law enforcement takes child pornography seriously, as it should, even charging people who discover child pornography and don’t report it.
For us, reporting child pornography is a moral imperative. The material might be important criminal evidence in an unsolved abduction case, or it could prevent another molestation. There’s also your own mental health to consider. This is one secret you absolutely shouldn’t have to live with. If you aren’t sure, contact local police.
6. Household Chemicals
For generations, U.S. homeowners have relied on harsh chemicals for cleaning, killing weeds and household pests, painting, and operating machinery. Half-used cans, bottles and jars tend to pile up and gather dust in garages and basements. Home mechanics often keep used motor oil in 55-gallon drums. We often find the ingredients of a homemade bomb—ammonium-based fertilizer, coffee cans of nails and matches—inadvertently placed side by side on a workshop shelf. Some chemicals are marked with skull-and-crossbones or green Mr. Yuk stickers.
Check with your local municipality–some dumps provide special drop-off sites for products that are flammable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic. If you find an unmarked liquid or powder, assume it’s something hazardous.
Oil-based paints are considered hazardous waste, but most municipalities will let you dry latex paint (add 1:1 ratio of cat litter) before disposal. If you have more than a quarter can, you can donate it to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore program.
Stashes of fireworks are, obviously, a fire hazard. You never know how old or intact they are, so don’t try to stage a show for your kids. They might misfire. Soak them in water to diffuse them, and then throw them away.
When it comes to house cleanouts, play it safe because even a clean, well-kept house can be a minefield of hidden hazards. If you do uncover a danger—be it explosive, toxic, or illegal—there’s always an expert you can call for help.