Rocky Mountain Labs urged to stop its burning 

On the heels of a recent report from a national health watchdog group detailing alternative methods of medical waste disposal, local environmentalists are again urging Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton to stop incinerating medical waste.

As recently as last year, RML stated that internal reviews of its waste disposal methods show that incineration is the only viable option, according to Bryony Schwan of Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), one of the local groups calling for the change. However, a report just issued by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, Health Care Without Harm, entitled “Non-Incineration Medical Waste Technologies,” outlines other disposal methods such as thermal, chemical, radiative and biological, that RML could feasibly use.

In 1991 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began a massive reassessment of the presence of dioxin in the environment and identified medical waste incinerators as the primary source of dioxins, which are chemical compounds known to cause a broad spectrum of adverse health effects in humans. Medical waste incineration commonly involves the burning of plastics used in research, which then release large quantities of dioxins into the atmosphere.

According to the EPA’s report, Dioxin: Summary of the Dioxin Reassessment Science: “Most dioxin enters ecological food webs by being deposited from the atmosphere, either directly following air emissions or indirectly by processes that return dioxins already in the environment to the atmosphere. Once they reach the environment, dioxins are highly persistent and can accumulate in the tissues of animals.”

While the EPA’s best estimates indicate that dioxin emissions in the United States decreased by 75 percent between 1987 and 1995, “EPA estimates that the amount of dioxin found in the tissues of the general human population closely approaches the levels at which adverse effects might be expected to occur.”

“None of these other technologies are pollution-free,” admits Schwan. “But given the fact that dioxin is so extraordinarily toxic, we feel very strongly that [RML] pursue alternate methods of disposal.” Schwan says that the labs have assured her that they will do everything they can to reduce dioxin emissions. “But that becomes a trust situation,” she says. “And quite frankly that’s not good enough for us. If they were willing to sit down with us and work out a waste management program, that would be a different story.”

A spokesperson at RML referred questions to a press officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases–RML’s parent organization–who says that the labs have planned a meeting for next week to discuss the issue.

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