Water Quality District - Hazardous Waste
Ballasts & Capacitors
What Are They?
Ballasts are used in fluorescent light fixtures, and capacitors are commonly used in major appliances. They are part of the electrical systems in these devices.
What Makes Them Hazardous?
Some ballasts and capacitors may contain PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). PCBs are synthetic chemicals invented in 1929 and were banned from production in 1977. PCBs are persistent chemicals --they can last a long time in our environment. They are also very toxic and can cause liver and kidney damage, disrupt hormones, lead to problems with pregnancies, and cause cancer.
Because of PCBs' (polychlorinated biphenyls) toxicity, persistence and potential ecological damage via water pollution, manufacture of PCB was discontinued in the U.S. in the late 1970s.
Identifying Ballasts Containing PCBs
Most older fluorescent light ballasts have small capacitors that contain high concentrations of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Disposal of pre-1979 light ballasts requires some knowledge of ballasts. Nearly all ballasts manufactured before 1979 contain PCBs. All ballasts manufactured after July 1, 1978 that do not contain PCBs are required to be clearly marked "No PCBs". Look for the "No PCBs" label and check the date stamp to see if the ballast was made after 1979. Unmarked ballasts or ballasts without a date code should assumed to be PCB ballasts.
PCBs are toxic chemicals according to U.S. EPA. While there is only a small amount, about one ounce, of PCBs in each light ballast capacitor, there is a large number of ballasts in the U.S. About half of the one billion ballasts, estimated as currently installed, were manufactured before 1979 and usually contain PCBs.
The primary purpose of the PCB regulations is to get PCBs permanently out of the environment. Regulations (Toxic Substances Control Act) about disposal of PCB ballasts indicate that it is permissible to dispose of non-leaking ballasts in a permitted landfill. Under this Act, lighting ballasts containing a Small PCB Capacitor are unregulated for disposal unless the Small Capacitor or ballast is leaking PCBs. Even though it is legal in most areas to dispose of residential ballasts in a permitted landfill, the EPA encourages disposers of large quantities of PCB ballasts to treat them as if they were a regulated PCB waste. The intent of the Small Capacitor disposal rule was to allow random disposal in landfills by householders and other infrequent disposers. For larger quantities of Small PCB Capacitors used by commercial and industrial sectors, the EPA encourages voluntary collection and disposal of Small PCB Capacitors in chemical waste landfills, ballast decap recycling processing, or high-temperature incinerators.
The Superfund Law (CERCLA) prohibits the disposal of more than one pound of PCBs (12-16 or more ballasts) in a 24-hour period in a permitted sanitary landfill.
Thirteen states ban PCB ballasts from permitted landfills, and another 17 states have special policies or requirements regarding disposal of PCB ballasts. Contact the BFI landfill (728-9572) for current policies regarding disposal of PCB ballasts.
Although very few ballasts leak, those that are leaking can usually be identified. Try to determine if a ballast is leaking before removing it from the fixture. Most PCB leaks are visible. If you see clear or yellow oil on the surface of a ballast, you probably have a leaking ballast. Wear chemically resistant gloves when handling the ballast and don't throw used ballasts around as leaks could result. Place the ballast in a heavy plastic bag. Technically, if PCB ballasts are leaking, they must be disposed of as regulated hazardous waste (TSCA).
- Never burn PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The fumes are even toxic.
- Assume that all ballasts or capacitors contain PCBs unless marked “No PCBs.”
- Use rubber gloves when handling leaking or cracked ballasts and capacitors.
- Annual Household Hazardous Waste
Collection Event: If the ballast is not labeled, assume it
contains PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and bring it to
Haz Waste Days in
September-- a charge will apply (Missoula County Residents will be
charged 1/2 of the disposal cost; businesses and out-of-county
residents will be charged our cost for disposal).
See Fluorescent Bulbs for additional information.
- Trash: If the ballast or capacitor is labeled “No PCBs,” it is safe to put it in your trash.
The Residential Disposal Guide is provided by the Missoula Valley Water Quality District as a public service and is not an endorsement of specific businesses, services or products. Any omissions or inaccuracies are unintentional. Please contact us with corrections or additions. Call businesses or agencies to confirm hours, locations and charges for services, if any. For information on disposal of items not listed, email or call the Water Quality District at 406-258-4890, M - F, 8 am to 5 pm.
Much of the information provided is from the Washington County, MN, Dept. of Public Health and Environment website.
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