Creating the Future
The United States and countries throughout the world are dealing with pollution problems from the past. Since Europeans came to this country, we have used natural resources as if they were inexhaustible. Early settlers cleared the forests to make way for towns and farms as they pushed from the east to the south and midwest and on to the west. The trees provided logs for building homes and heating them. The forests and rivers provided food. The skins of animals who lived in the forests provided materials for warm clothing. As more people came to North America, the use of natural resources increased.
Increases in population create more demand for goods and services. To meet these demands, industry needs more raw materials. Some of these materials, like cotton, rubber, and wood, are renewable, if managed correctly. Once they are harvested, a new crop can be planted. Some materials, however, like the fossil fuels used to produce energy, are not renewable. The Earth contains a fixed amount. The technology we developed made it possible for industry to use raw materials at a much greater rate than ever before, frequently faster than even the renewable resources could be replaced.
Technological progress and population growth have contributed to the production of hazardous waste that pollutes the land, air, and water. Hazardous waste comes from a wide variety of sources, and from both present and past activities. It most often is a by-product of manufacturing processes. Some of it comes from our homes as well, when we do not dispose of hazardous substances properly. The waste is hazardous because it contains chemicals that can have harmful effects on our health or the health of plants and animals (See Fact Flash 1: Hazardous Substances and Hazardous Waste).
Years ago, before we understood the dangers of hazardous waste, there were no laws controlling waste disposal. Eventually, thousands of uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites were created at manufacturing facilities, harbors, processing plants, landfills, and many other kinds of places. Congress created the Superfund Program to investigate and clean up hazardous waste sites nationwide.
Fact Flash 2: The Superfund Cleanup Program, provides a good overview of what EPA is trying to accomplish with the Superfund program.
To help prepare your students for this activity, use Warm-Up 1: Defining Hazardous Waste and Warm-up 5: Hazardous Waste Issues in the News. You can perform the entire Warm-up or simply review the main points covered in it. As a follow-up, have your students complete Activity 5: How Hazardous Substances Affect People.