Missoula Technology and Development Center Facilities Toolbox: Hazardous Substances in Buildings
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Is there a problem with dumping old lighting ballasts in the trash?

Image of a small device with a yellow label that reads, Caution PCBs.There may be.

Lighting ballasts generate an initial high voltage to start the arc that excites the gases in fluorescent and HID lamps and makes them shine. They're usually rectangular black boxes with wires coming out of one or both ends.

Lighting ballasts for fluorescent light bulbs and HID lamps made before 1980 may contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). When the manufacture of PCBs was banned, existing equipment containing PCBs was allowed to remain in use. Because ballasts can last for 30 years or more, there are still some PCB-containing ballasts in older buildings. Fortunately, you can easily tell whether a ballast contains PCBs. Ballasts that don't contain PCBs have the words "No PCBs" printed on them. "No PCBs" ballasts can be disposed with normal trash in most states. Ballasts that have PCBs are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). They aren't hazardous when used as intended, as long as they don't leak.

You may be able to dispose of a few intact ballasts containing PCBs the same as ordinary trash or at a household hazardous waste collection event or drop-off location sponsored by your county, city, or waste disposal district or company. Many states have developed regulations governing the disposal of intact ballasts containing PCBs that are more stringent than Federal regulations. If you have a lot of ballasts (the number varies by State) or if you have leaking ballasts, special disposal is required through EPA-approved disposal methods. Arrangements may be made with companies that provide EPA-approved PCB storage for shipment of ballasts containing PCBs to an EPA-approved chemical waste processing site. Because requirements vary by State, check with your regional environmental engineer (Web site available only to FS and BLM employees) before making disposal decisions.

Health Issues: PCBs can enter the environment through both use and disposal. PCBs stay in the body, so effects can get continually worse every time a person is exposed to PCBs. Severe concentrated exposure to PCBs can result in skin lesions, liver damage, or other problems. Lower level exposures are more common, and typically occur through eating contaminated fish, milk, or other foods. Over time, lower exposures may result in thyroid, immune system, and reproductive system problems and cancer. Infants born to mothers that have consumed PCBs may have problems with motor skills, hearing, and brain function.


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