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Reduce Chemical Usage
Chemicals Used at Home
The importance of
education in bringing nonpoint-source pollution under control is a
recurring theme in this issue of EPA Journal. The reason for this is
pragmatic: What you don't know can hurt the environment. When rain
falls or snow melts, the seemingly negligible amounts of chemicals
and other pollutants around your home and premises get picked up and
carried via storm drains to surface waters. The ramifications
include polluted drinking water, beach closings, and endangered
So what can you do to
help protect surface and ground waters from so-called
nonpoint-source pollution? You can start at home. Begin by taking a
close look at practices around your house that might be contributing
to polluted runoff: You may need to make some changes. The following
are some specific tips to act on--dos and don'ts, organized by
categories, to help you become part of the solution rather than part
of the problem of nonpoint-source pollution.
Be aware that many
chemicals commonly used around the home are toxic. Select less
toxic alternatives. Use non-toxic substitutes wherever possible.
- Buy chemicals only in the amount
you expect to use, and apply them only as directed. More is not
- Take unwanted household chemicals
to hazardous waste collection centers; do not pour them down the
drain. Pouring chemicals down the drain may disrupt your septic
system or else contaminate treatment plant sludge.
- Never pour unwanted chemicals on
the ground. Soil cannot purify most chemicals, and they may
eventually contaminate runoff.
- Use low-phosphate or phosphate-free
- Use water-based products whenever
- Leftover household pesticide? Do
not indiscriminately spray pesticides, either indoors or outdoors,
where a pest problem has not been identified. Dispose of excess
pesticides at hazardous waste collection centers.
Landscaping and gardening
- When landscaping your yard, select
plants that have low requirements for water, fertilizers, and
- Cultivate plants that discourage
pests. Minimize grassed areas which require high maintenance.
- Preserve existing trees, and plant
trees and shrubs to help prevent erosion and promote infiltration
of water into the soil.
- Use landscaping techniques such as
grass swales (low areas in the lawn) or porous walkways to
increase infiltration and decrease runoff.
- Other landscaping tips:
- Install wood decking or bricks or
interlocking stones instead of impervious cement walkways.
- Install gravel trenches along
driveways or patios to collect water and allow it to filter into
- Restore bare patches in your lawn
as soon as possible to avoid erosion.
- Grade all areas away from your
house at a slope of one percent or more.
- Leave lawn clippings on your lawn
so that nutrients in the clippings are recycled and less yard
waste goes to landfills.
- If you elect to use a professional
lawn care service, select a company that employs trained
technicians and follows practices designed to minimize the use of
fertilizers and pesticides.
- Compost your yard trimmings.
Compost is a valuable soil conditioner which gradually releases
nutrients to your lawn and garden. (Using compost will also
decrease the amount of fertilizer you need to apply.) In addition,
compost retains moisture in the soil and thus helps you conserve
- Spread mulch on bare ground to help
prevent erosion and runoff.
- Test your soil before applying
fertilizers. Over- fertilization is a common problem, and the
excess can leach into ground water or contaminate rivers or lakes.
Also, avoid using fertilizers near surface waters. Use slow-
release fertilizers on areas where the potential for water
contamination is high, such as sandy soils, steep slopes,
compacted soils, and verges of water bodies. Select the proper
season to apply fertilizers: Incorrect timing may encourage weeds
or stress grasses. Do not apply pesticides or fertilizers before
or during rain due to the strong likelihood of runoff.
- Calibrate your applicator before
applying pesticides or fertilizers. As equipment ages, annual
adjustments may be needed.
- Keep storm gutters and drains clean
of leaves and yard trimmings. (Decomposing vegetative matter
leaches nutrients and can clog storm systems and result in
Improperly maintained septic systems
can contaminate ground water and surface water with nutrients and
pathogens. By following the recommendations below, you can help
ensure that your system continues to function properly.
- Inspect your septic system
- Pump out your septic system
regularly. (Pumping out every three to five years is recommended
for a three-bedroom house with a 1,000-gallon tank; smaller tanks
should be pumped more often.)
- Do not use septic system additives.
There is no scientific evidence that biological and chemical
additives aid or accelerate decomposition in septic tanks; some
additives may in fact be detrimental to the septic system or
contaminate ground water.
- Do not divert stormdrains or
basement pumps into septic systems.
- Avoid or reduce the use of your
garbage disposal. (Garbage disposals contribute unnecessary solids
to your septic system and can also increase the frequency your
tank needs to be pumped.)
- Don't use toilets as trash
cans! Excess solids may clog your drainfield and necessitate more
Homeowners can significantly reduce
the volume of wastewater discharged to home septic systems and
sewage treatment plants by conserving water. If you have a septic
system, by decreasing your water usage, you can help prevent your
system from overloading and contaminating ground water and surface
water. (Seventy-five percent of drainfield failures are due to
- Use low-flow faucets, shower heads,
reduced-flow toilet flushing equipment, and water saving
appliances such as dish and clothes washers. (See table on water
savings possible with conservation devices.)
- Repair leaking faucets, toilets,
- Use dishwashers and clothes washers
only when fully loaded.
- Take short showers instead of baths
and avoid letting faucets run unnecessarily.
- Wash your car only when necessary;
use a bucket to save water. Alternatively, go to a commercial
carwash that uses water efficiently and disposes of runoff
- Do not over-water your lawn or
garden. Over-watering may increase leaching of fertilizers to
- When your lawn or garden needs
watering, use slow-watering techniques such as trickle irrigation
or soaker hoses. (Such devices reduce runoff and are 20-percent
more effective than sprinklers.)
Other Areas Where You Can Make a Difference
- Clean up after your pets. Pet waste
contains nutrients and pathogens that can contaminate surface
- Drive only when necessary. Driving
less reduces the amount of pollution your automobile generates.
Automobiles emit tremendous amounts of airborne pollutants, which
increase acid rain; they also deposit toxic metals and petroleum
byproducts into the environment. Regular tuneups and inspections
can help keep automotive waste and byproducts from contaminating
runoff. Clean up any spilled automobile fluids.
- Recycle used oil and antifreeze by
taking them to service stations and other recycling centers. Never
put used oil or other chemicals down stormdrains or in drainage
ditches. (One quart of oil can contaminate up to two million
gallons of drinking water!)
- Participate in clean-up
activities in your neighborhood.
- Write or call your elected
representatives to inform them about your concerns and encourage
legislation to protect water resources.
- Get involved in local
planning and zoning decisions and encourage your local officials
to develop erosion and sediment control ordinances.
environmental education. Help educate people in your community
about ways in which they can help protect water quality. Get your
community groups involved.