Toxic Work Environment


CARSTENSEN’S CABINET OF CURIOSITIES: Dana Carstensen and his fellow hazardous waste technicians handle a lot of unusual items, and some they collect in a back room shelf, from antique cleaning products to jars of snakes in brine. | PHOTOS BY COLIN STAUB

On the job with AFSCME Local 3580: You name it, Metro’s hazardous waste workers handle it. The job combines science, a strong stomach, and a whole lot of caution.

At the Metro South transfer station in Oregon City, the hazardous waste department handles a lot of paint. It also gets its fair share of lightbulbs, medical sharps and other identifiable discards. And more often than you might think, unlabeled containers holding unknown liquids are dropped off. That’s when Cheyenne Lee and Dana Carstensen get to become chemical detectives.

Lee and Carstensen are two of the 15 household hazardous waste technicians at the Metro South transfer station. Both are active in their union, AFSCME Local 3580. Carstensen serves on its executive board, and Lee served as an elected delegate at AFSCME’s international convention in Philadelphia in July. 

Their job at Metro South is to handle materials that aren’t allowed to go into a landfill, per U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations. That typically means there is a toxic or otherwise environmentally damaging substance contained within the product, and it requires special treatment. It could be flammable, corrosive, poisonous, explosive. At the transfer station, workers must identify what a substance is, and prepare the material for transportation to a downstream processor.

“We have to have some kind of knowledge on what everything is,” Carstensen says. 

When a vehicle arrives, if its material is deemed potentially hazardous at the check-in gate, an AFSCME-represented traffic controller directs the customer to the hazardous waste area. There, household hazardous waste technicians load the materials onto a cart, where the filtering begins.

The technicians separate and aggregate what they know to be flammable liquids, aerosols, motor oil, antifreeze, paint. These materials are further analyzed to confirm their contents, using tools like a PID (photoionization detector) meter, which measures volatile organic compounds offgassing from the liquid. That tells them whether a container of motor oil also contains gasoline mixed in and must be separated, for example.

Their lab doubles as a ‘blast room’

Just inside the hazardous waste building, at the west end of the 30-year-old Metro South campus, drums and buckets full of labeled substances occupy a room with bright red walls, metal grating floors, and thick steel doors. It looks like a chemistry lab. Laminated sheets with lists of chemicals (and what they react with) are taped to a steel table. For products that came in labeled, workers run further tests and aggregate like substances together, preparing them for shipment to a processor.

For more nebulous liquids, things get real technical—and perhaps unnerving. Containers with unknown contents are carted into a smaller room with another thick door.

“This is our lab,” Carstensen says. “It’s actually a blast room, if something explodes.”

Within the blast room, there’s a “boom box” — a reinforced steel container for storing suspected explosive materials before they can be analyzed. Calcium carbide, used in old mining lamps, is one example. When it hits water, it produces an extremely flammable gas. Workers have received containers full of the material, and if it gets a tiny bit wet and a spark goes off, it could explode.

Carstensen and his coworkers also use a radiation detector. Recently, someone brought in old paint that workers determined contained the radioactive element radium. (Radium paint was once common but is no longer widely used because of the health hazards.) Someone else brought in antique medical needles, which had radium in the tips. Despite the tiny amount, those needles cost $15,000 to dispose of, Carstensen said.

On the other side of the room is a testing station with a periodic table hanging above it. Here, workers run through numerous tests to determine whether the substance is soluble, water-reactive or flammable. They examine its color while burning, its pH content, and much more.

A sign in all caps above the test station suggests the level of caution needed: “Do not test unknowns when there is someone on the roof.”

The most bizarre items that come through the facility are collected on a “shelf of oddities” in the blast room, like an unknown animal brain, half a dozen jars containing snakes in brine, and old packages proudly advertising their product contains asbestos.

Once, someone brought in the remnants of a marine biologist’s lab, including about 55 gallons of formaldehyde in small mayonnaise jars, each with a sample in it of fish, squid, turtles, starfish.

There’s very little that phases the hazardous waste workers.

END OF THE LINE FOR AEROSOLS The “bulking room,” above, is where aerosols and other chemical containers go to be crushed. Hazardous waste technician Cheyenne Lee, above, says it’s one of the dirtiest jobs in the transfer station’s hazardous materials shop, requiring heavy duty coveralls and a respirator with supplied air.

PPE for anything and everything

Most workers have PPE tailored to known hazards, but in hazardous waste disposal, PPE must protect workers from anything and everything.

“[In factories] they have safety data sheets,” Lee says. “But we don’t know what’s coming through the door.” 

To protect themselves, hazardous waste workers have different levels of personal protective equipment (PPE) based on the task at hand. For unloading from cars, initial sorting and testing, workers wear a Tyvek 400 (a hooded coverall), a polyurethane apron, safety goggles and two pairs of nitrile gloves.

“That way, if your first pair is contaminated, you have a second pair of gloves ready to go,” Lee explains. She rolls her sleeves down over the gloves and seals the cuffs with duct tape to prevent liquids leaking through. That’s their standard PPE for most situations, including around the most dangerous chemicals in the facility. Back in the substance testing room, for example, there’s a (covered) vat of hydrochloric acid. If it were to splash on someone’s skin, it could eat through to the bone. Even there, workers use the standard gear – if a splash occurs, the PPE is just to prevent injury until they can get to the showers.

Dirtier jobs require more intense PPE.

Down the hall from the test room is the crushing (or “bulking”) room, where aerosol cans and other combustibles are crushed and consolidated into 55-gallon drums. Before entering, workers don a Tychem 6000—a hooded and booted coverall that’s thicker and more chemically resistant than the Tyvek 400. Because of the aerosols, which could be splashing around, they also wear respirators and hook into an air hose. 

It’s a messy job, Lee says. Although most of the contents of the aerosol cans are pulled through a huge air vent above the crusher, plenty goes splashing into the room—and onto the worker.

It’s one of the tasks with the most exposure to chemicals, Lee says, but that doesn’t mean she shies away from it.

“That’s kind of a fun part,” she says. “I like bulking – it’s fun just seeing everything get squished down and condensed into a big slop.”

Re-use, not just disposal

Most of what comes into Metro South’s hazardous waste department is treated and disposed of (in a hazardous waste landfill, or through energy recovery). But not all of it. Some of the paint gets recycled into new Metro-branded paint at a facility on Swan Island. And workers are excited about the transfer station’s “reuse” program.

“A lot of the time, when people come in they’re bringing in waste they’ve inherited, from buying a house, or maybe some loved ones passed away and they’re cleaning out the house,” Lee says, lifting a mostly full container of laundry detergent. “Things like this—that are still in good condition and totally usable—we will put in a tote and give back to the community.” 

Fertilizer, cleaners, detergent and automotive products are examples of materials set aside for reuse. They’re organized in totes and sent to organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Helping Hands and Dignity Village, a tiny house village for the homeless in North Portland.

The transfer station sent out nearly 14,000 pounds of materials for re-use in July, and 110,000 pounds in an average year. That saves Metro money by avoiding processing costs, and it benefits the organizations that get the products free of charge. 

There’s an environmental benefit, too.

“There’s a large carbon footprint to get rid of that waste,” Carstensen says, gesturing to drums of material being loaded into a truck for disposal. He turns back to the tote that will be donated. “This goes directly to the customers, and they’re using it as intended.”


  1. Thanks for profiling members of Metro’s Hazardous Waste team. Metro is recruiting for five variable hour Hazardous Waste Technicians. If this work sounds interesting to you, consider applying!


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