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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hospital Incinerators: They May Be Making People Sick

Air Date: Week of

The same hospitals that are working to heal people's poor health may be making them sick when they burn their medical waste in incinerators, thus releasing dioxin into the environment. Julie Edelson-Halpert reports on this still wide-spread practice and on what other options are possible.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The US Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules covering the emission of highly toxic dioxin from medical waste incinerators. The move is aimed at forcing hospitals to look for alternative methods to dispose of contaminated materials without poisoning the air. From Ann Arbor, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Julie Edelson Halpert has our story.

(A siren sounds. Man 1: "L5 hospital, how do you copy?" Man 2: "Loud and clear L5." Doctors speak.)

HALPERT: It is a busy evening in the emergency room of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Patients are being treated with traditional medical instruments: syringes, intravenous tubes, and blood pressure cuffs. To avoid contamination, these instruments of healing must be discarded in a safe manner, typically through incineration. But burning them can create a toxic cocktail. As the plastic is in incinerated, it forms dioxin, a pollutant implicated in human birth defects and reproductive problems. Medical waste incinerators are now one of the largest sources of dioxin in the United States.

EASTHOPE: Well it is ironic that our nation's hospitals, which are dedicated to the treatment of sick people, are also the largest contributors of one of the most toxic compounds that we yet know about.

HALPERT: That's Tracey Easthope of the Ecology Center, an Ann Arbor-based environmental group leading the grassroots fight against dioxin contamination. Because of growing concerns about these emissions, the EPA will soon require about 2,000 nationwide to install costly emission controls at about $200,000 each. That's substantially more expensive than the price of the original incinerator. Shari Marasola is a spokeswoman for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

MARASOLA: If people were to keep their medical waste incinerators, the added emission control requirements, the costs of smokestack testing, and the costs associated with the new administrative controls, you know it will force a lot of smaller and many larger institutions to close down their incinerators.

HALPERT: EPA predicts that the new requirements will force over two thirds of existing medical waste incinerators to shut down. As a result, hospitals nationwide have begun a search for more benign alternatives. Last fall, St. Joseph closed its incinerator and began sending its waste to a new kind of facility.

(Pounding sounds)

HALPERT: It's cooking time at Browning-Ferris's autoclaving facility in Toledo, Ohio. A pervasive odor, a mix of hospital antiseptic and cleaning fluid, wafts through the air. each month this facility treats 1.2 million pounds of waste through autoclaving, a simple process which uses steam to disinfect the waste before it's landfilled. Autoclaving has been commonly used to sterilize instruments in research labs and doctor's offices.

POLE: Okay, once it goes into the autoclave, the doors are sealed. That's when the steam is injected into the autoclave, so you elevate the temperature, you elevate the pressure, and you basically cook the waste. And the waste comes out and then it goes into a container and brought to a landfill.

HALPERT: BFI District Manager Rick Pole expects to say autoclaving overtake incineration, as more hospitals look for environmentally friendly and financially sensible alternatives. And autoclaving isn't just being pushed by those who stand to benefit from it. It won the support of waste management guru Dr. Barry Commoner of Queens College in New York City. In a soon to be released report, Dr. Commoner argues that autoclaving is better for the environment than incineration and says hospitals could construct and operate their own autoclave facilities economically. But skeptics like Shari Marasola of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association say Dr. Commoner's report underestimates the additional labor required by autoclaving.

MARASOLA: I think there's always going to be sort of an interest or that there's going to be a lingering interest in pure incineration just because of its economy and it really reduces mass to a very large degree. And when you're operating in a constant sort of backlog situation with waste, there's something appealing I think to that.

HALPERT: But hospitals and environmentalists agree that ultimately the best option is to avoid generating much of the waste in the first place. They say that a significant amount of hospital equipment could be recycled, and some of the more toxic materials could be reduced. The National Wildlife Federation recently launched a project with Michigan hospitals to find safer alternatives to mercury, a chemical pervasive in medical equipment that becomes extremely dangerous when incinerated. Guy Williams is the group's pollution prevention specialist.

WILLIAMS: We'll be looking at a range of issues, primarily ways to help hospitals become mercury-free to the extent that's feasible or possible economically. Alternatives to certain types of equipment that are typically used such as thermometers, blood pressure equipment, specialized batteries.

HALPERT: Other states, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, are launching similar programs to address their medcal waste predicament. States that haven't begun planning are likely to be spurred into action by the EPA's new regulations, expected this April. For Living on Earth, I'm Julie Edelson Halpert in Ann Arbor, Michigan.



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