Hospitals have traditionally been places of healing, but for many communities throughout the country, toxic hospital waste poses a threat to the health of citizens, some of whom live within hundreds of feet of medical waste incinerators that are pumping cancer-causing emissions into the air.
Hospitals generate about two million tons of waste every year, about 10 to 15 percent of which is considered hazardous, or “regulated,” medical waste, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Regulated medical waste is defined differently by each state, but it includes any tools that may carry pathogens, like discarded needles and surgical gloves. Medical waste is considered hazardous and can therefore not be put directly into a landfill; instead it must first be sterilized in some way. This sterilization process either involves the waste being burned in incineration or steamed in a process called autoclaving.
For many years, incineration was the most popular way of sterilizing medical waste—but this sterilization comes at a cost. Medical waste has a much higher percentage of PVC (polyvinyl chloride, #3 plastic) and mercury than other waste, so it emits many toxins when incinerated, including dioxin, a known carcinogen.
The EPA identifies medical waste incineration as the third-largest source of dioxin in the country; even in low doses, continued exposure to dioxin has been linked with cancer. In addition to dioxin emissions, medical waste incineration is also responsible for releasing mercury and other toxic heavy metals into the air.
Most hospitals hire out the job of waste management to private firms, the largest of which is Stericycle, an Illinois-based company that runs 11 medical incinerators around the country. Pressure from activists has tightened regulations in many states, so the number of medical waste incinerators has been reduced dramatically in the last several years. However, lax regulations in some regions have resulted in an increase in large, centralized medical waste incinerators, some of which process medical waste from several states.
“We’re seeing medical waste incineration become regionalized,” says says Karl Krupp, medical waste group leader for Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), who is concerned that communities in states with softer regulations are paying the price for waste created elsewhere. “Hospitals are still incinerating their waste, but now they’re just sending it longer distances, and the incinerators are much larger in order to deal with the demand.”
In North Salt Lake City, Utah, a housing development was built along the edge of the Stericycle plant after the state changed zoning rules that previously prevented any homes from being built within one mile of the incinerator. Now schools and playgrounds are on the property next to the incinerator, and residents have reported seeing black smoke, a sure sign of dioxin emissions, coming from the plant.
Haw River, North Carolina, a town of about 2,000 people in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is home to another one of Stericycle’s medical waste incinerators. The Stericycle facility has been cited in the past for mercury emissions violations, and community organizers continue to have concerns about the “invisible threat” of toxic emissions coming from the plant, which handles medical waste from 23 different states.
“It’s really not fair,” says Sue Dayton of the Blue Ridge Environmental League,“This waste is coming from up and down the east coast, and the consequences all end up in this community.”
Dayton and others hope to express their concerns to local officials when Stericycle’s Title V permit, required for operation of the incinerator, comes up for renewal this winter.
“Our goal,” says Krupp, “is not to put Stericycle out of business, but to encourage them to switch to more environmentally friendly technologies.” One of these technologies is autoclaving, a process that uses steam to sterilize medical waste.
In addition to helping activists shut down medical waste incinerators in their communities, Health Care Without Harm and its sister organization, Hospitals for a Healthy Environment are focusing on general waste streams inside hospitals as well. The groups work to reduce the presence of mercury and PVC in hospitals, increase recycling rates, promote “green” purchasing, and deal with the growing problem of pharmaceutical waste disposal.
“A lot of hospitals are simply flushing their pharmaceutical waste,” says Krupp. “We are seeing real environmental damage from prescription and non-prescription drugs being dumped in the sewer system and making it into local waterways.”
For instance, one US Geological Survey study found traces of 12 different pharmaceuticals in the Boulder Creek Watershed in Colorado. Some native fish populations in Boulder Creek were found to exhibit signs of endocrine disruption, including fish having both female and male reproductive organs; most scientists agree that this is due in part to the presence of pharmaceutical waste in the water.