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Medical Waste: Healthy, Cheaper Alternatives Than Incineration by Ellen Twist

Medical Waste: Healthy, Cheaper Alternatives Than Incineration by Ellen Twist Medical Waste: Healthy, Cheaper Alternatives Than Incineration by Ellen Twist

A seemingly innocent question was put to the Marion County Solid Waste Management Advisory Council (SWMAC) at their May, 1997, meeting: Should the county displace in-county waste with out-of-county medical waste generating additional revenue for the grant program?

Several Council members felt this question needed more than a cursory answer and requested information on both sides of the question. Unknown to Council members, a report detailing the threat that medical waste incineration poses to public health and the environment, First, Do No Harm had been provided days in advance of this agenda item to SWM Director Jim Sears and Council Chair John Shearer, but was deliberately withheld from Council members.

SWMAC decided to create a panel of experts to discuss the issue in August at McNary High School, Keizer, Oregon, with room for both the Council and public to listen and question. The four panelists the Council suggested at the May meeting were a spokesman from the firm that built the incinerator, Ogden Martin (O-M), a representative to be selected by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) staff person, and a local physician. The local physician was later dropped by Director Sears (no publicly stated reason).

On August 12th, the three selected panel members, Jeffrey Hahn (O-M), Paul Connett, Ph.D. (PSR), and Richard Gates (DEQ), presented themselves publicly with Rep. Bryan Johnston, interim President of Willamette University, acting as moderator. About 100 Marion County residents were in the audience, including the mayors of Salem, Woodburn and Silverton, three Salem City Council members, Randy Franke of the Board of Commissioners, and fifteen members of the Advisory Council. CCTV cameramen recorded the three hour session. (503-588-2288 to request the times the program will be aired.)

Paul Connett, Ph.D, professor of chemistry and internationally known expert on waste incineration, pointed out that the goal of incinerating medical waste is to destroy the pathogens which live on it. Yet, when we do it, we invent a completely different problem: the waste products created by burning the medical waste include highly toxic dioxins and furans. Conclusion: incineration of medical waste not only does not solve the disposal problem, it increases pollution by adding chemicals extremely dangerous to life to air, land and water.

Richard Gates, DEQ representative, asserted that incineration is the best route for pathological waste (one portion of what constitutes medical waste). He explained that hospital administrators must decide how to deal with the medical waste generated by their respective hospital.

Richard Gates neglected to mention that having the option to transport medical waste for incineration remotely allows these hospital administrators to shirk their responsibility. Money solves any problem. They just pay to ‘ship their trouble’ someplace else. Unfortunately for the people of Oregon’s north Willamette Valley, the ‘someplace else’ is Brooks, on the Interstate 5 corridor between Salem and Portland.

New information for many in the audience was revealed when Connett listed three safe and acceptable alternatives to incineration which are less costly and can be accomplished on hospital grounds. 1) Shredding and microwaving; 2) autoclaving, and 3) shredding and treating with chemical disinfectant. No risk is acceptable if it is avoidable. Quite obviously, the dangers of dioxin would be notably diminished if no out-of-county medical waste were imported, so why would we even consider it?

Jeffrey Hahn, representing the incinerator owner, emphasized how very low the amount of dioxin is that’s emitted into the air–much lower than that permitted by EPA. As a matter of fact, Stack One that contained the medical waste measured even lower than Stack Two with just municipal solid waste.

(Personally, I don’t find this fact reassuring. Until then, I’d only been concerned about medwaste.)

Connett brought the ineffectiveness of current testing into perspective by pointing out that it is done only every five years (24 hours testing to 80,000 hours burning) and by a company selected by Ogden Martin. Ogden Martin is even given a 30 day notice of the testing company’s intended arrival.

A very sensible suggestion for testing, costing little, would be to collect daily samples of the fly ash (the residue remaining after incineration). The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality could select a random date to test; it would be more scientific and collection on a continuous basis would provide more accurate data. If something questionable comes up in that day’s fly ash, tests could be performed with ash around that date to see if it was a fluke, or indicative of something gone wrong.

A completely different perspective was put on the importation of medwaste when Connett cautioned the audience about accepting closed boxes and sending them straight to the incinerator. Eventually there will be third party brokering of waste, and no assurance that contents are what they are represented to be. Radioactive isotopes could be shipped in, and Ogden Martin has no way to monitor these. “You’re really opening a Pandora’s box if you import,” Connett strongly advised.

Another significant point the chemistry professor made is that the very toxic fly ash (from the top of the incinerator smoke stack) is combined with the bulky, relatively benign bottom ash, rather than being safely contained and disposed of separately. This voluminous pile is added to daily, hauled in trucks up I-5 and deposited in an open-air dump right next to the freeway, at Woodburn.

The strongest argument incineration advocates can offer is that the amount of medical waste is very small relative to the total tonnage incinerated at Brooks. This begs the question: why does our society countenance the creation of deadly toxic chemicals like dioxin in the first place. There is no risk assessment anywhere that can justify these activities where human and other life is involved, particu-larly when there are viable alternatives.

Unanimity did exist on several points in this otherwise divided presentation. Everyone agrees that dioxins and furans are created during incineration of waste containing chlorine (such as PVC plastics, a major component of the medical waste stream as well as construction supplies, and more)

Everyone agrees that dioxin has super toxic potency at extremely minute levels. Finally, everyone agrees that dioxin builds continuously in human tissue over time until it hits a threshold that triggers tragic health consequences. EPA correctly states that dioxin quantities below detection levels are of concern, and has routinely cited negative or zero detection of dioxins at half the level of detection for both statistical and protective policy reasons. This is based on the ultra high biomagnification that dioxin is capable of, dioxin’s long-term persistence in the environment, etc.

More clearly stated: tiny amounts of “dioxin cause cancer, affect the immune system, cause birth defects, decrease fertility, cause reproductive dysfunctions, and adversely affects hormonal processes.” First, Do No Harm, p. 2.

Do the citizens of Marion County, and the people downstream and downwind (Portland et. al.) want to import and then burn medical waste? Must we create toxic pollutants simply to generate income for Marion County’s Department of Solid Waste? Or any other program? I don’t think so! This is truly blood money, and at the cost of our health. The premise of calculated risk on which this whole thing is based is madness. Who needs it!

Please comment by e-mailing the Marion County Commissioners at: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], and blind copy your message to me: [email protected], or call them at 503-588-5212,

Thank you for your time and involvement. It certainly matters!

Ellen Twist has been attending Marion County Solid Waste Management Advisory Council meetings for several years. Her application for membership on the council was soundly rejected.

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