Keeping the Home Fires Burning 

Plans to burn waste cool down in Idaho, but not in Montana

In the world of environmental activism, where success is often measured in milligrams per liter, parts per billion or other seemingly imperceptible increments, it’s rare to witness as unqualified a victory as the one achieved this week in Jackson, Wyo. On Monday, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it had agreed to halt plans to build a controversial plutonium waste incinerator at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) in eastern Idaho.

The announcement, which included a commitment by the DOE to “pursue the goal of environmentally sound alternatives to incineration” by appointing a blue ribbon panel of independent scientists to study non-incineration alternatives, marks a major victory for opponents of nuclear incineration nationwide and a fundamental shift in the DOE’s attitudes toward the entire issue of waste incineration. Unfortunately, similar threats to the public health persist in our own backyard.

Thankfully, this region’s low population density has spared Missoula from the enormous environmental and economic costs associated with large municipal waste incinerators. Missoula’s two hospitals no longer incinerate their medical waste, having opted several years ago to ship their waste to autoclave facilities in Butte and North Dakota. Still, the threats posed locally by waste incinerators remains far from negligible, as three facilities in Montana—Smurfit-Stone Container, Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Helena—continue to incinerate materials that release dangerous chemicals into the environment. As a result, Dr. Paul Connett, an international expert on waste incineration, will be conducting public educational forums this Saturday in Missoula and Helena on the health risks associated with incineration.

Although scientists have known for years the risks associated with burning plastics, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), paper, batteries, mercury and other heavy metals that turn up in the medical waste stream, a major turning point occurred in 1994 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a reassessment of the health risks of dioxin, the highly toxic class of carcinogens that are created when certain plastics are burned. At the time, the EPA made the startling announcement that hospital waste incinerators (which then totaled more than 5,000 nationwide) were the number one source of dioxins going into our environment, even more so than the nation’s large municipal waste incinerators.

Currently, there are less than 2,000 medical waste incinerators in the nation, and no new ones are proposed in Montana. Nevertheless, since June 1999 the Missoula-based Women’s Voice for the Earth (WVE), the Montana Environmental Information Center and the national campaign Health Care without Harm have been working to pressure the VA Hospital in Helena to shut down its medical waste incinerator.

According to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the VA incinerator has the potential for releasing as much as half a pound of dioxins into the environment annually, with similar levels permitted at Hamilton’s Rocky Mountain Labs as well. Likewise, Smurfit-Stone Container incinerates tons of plastic waste every day in its waste fuel boilers, creating an additional source of dioxins locally.

At first glance, half a pound of dioxin each year may not sound earth-shattering, until you realize that dioxins have been known to cause significant health effects—birth defects, decreased fertility, immune system suppression and other hormonal dysfunction, to name but a few—at levels as low as a few parts per quadrillion.

However, at least 80 to 90 percent of the medical waste that hospitals and labs incinerate does not need to be burned, says Connett, and could easily and more cheaply be removed from the waste stream.

“A lot of it is inertia,” says Connett. “If you’ve always had the incinerator on the hospital grounds, the tendency is to keep it running until someone stops you.”

The fundamental problem with medical waste is that you have infectious material that you don’t want to get into the environment. Unfortunately, by using high temperature incineration, Connett says that you convert the problem from a fairly discreet biological problem to a host of very complicated chemical problems.

As Connett points out, there are many existing technologies that can tackle the garden variety pathogens that hospitals routinely handle, such as microwaving, chemical disinfection and steam sterilization, all of which are commercially available, used by hospitals, and are cheaper. Ironically, the most expensive option these days for waste elimination is incineration. While he acknowledges that when it comes to places like Rocky Mountain Labs, which deals with highly infectious material, incineration is somewhat more justifiable—“Basically you’re dealing with some pretty nasty stuff, so there’s a legitimate argument to be awfully cautious”—a lot can be done with waste reduction at the front end by using different materials, removing PVC, mercury and other heavy metals from the system, and simply reducing unnecessary packaging.

This week, the VA Hospital in Helena indicated that it will stop burning its medical waste by June 1, according to Lee Logan of VA Montana. Meanwhile, WVE’s Bryony Schwan remains skeptical.

“As far as we’re concerned, they shouldn’t be burning one more day,” she says.

Dr. Connett will be speaking at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 1 at the Missoula Public Library. The forum is free and open to the public.

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