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Op-ed column: DAQ lacks medical expertise
Jul 25, 2013 | 2081 views | 1 1 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print

By Dr. Brian Moench, President, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment

The opinions stated in this article are solely those of the author and not of The Davis County Clipper. 

NORTH SALT LAKE — Recently, The Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) were asked by Foxboro residents to evaluate the health hazards of the hospital waste incinerator, Stericycle. The neighbors were noticing many of the health outcomes known to be associated with incinerator emissions, and were concerned about the recent revelation that Stericycle had been caught egregiously violating its permit and falsifying records. Now we’ve learned that the state and the federal government have launched criminal investigations of Stericycle.

Although the total volume of emissions from Stericycle is relatively minor, the toxicity of those emissions is anything but. In fact, of the most hazardous components of air pollution, Stericycle emits about the same amount as a full-sized oil refinery or coal-fired power plant. 

Despite Stericycle’s permit, there is no such thing as a safe level of exposure to many of these highly toxic substances, especially for a pregnant mother. Numerous studies show a long list of medical diseases and complications at higher rates among people who live in the vicinity of incinerators. This is no surprise, because a close look at Stericycle’s emissions reads like an All-Star line up of some of the deadliest compounds known to man С dioxins, lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, chlorine, ammonia and benzene С all spreading miles from the smoke stack.

Apparently, none of this is a concern to the Utah Division of Air Quality engineer in charge of Stericycle’s permit, Harold Burge. In his mind, the real villains are the doctors of UPHE. In an article published last week in the Clipper, Burge trivialized the health risk from Stericycle, and blatantly mocked the physicians who spoke at the townhall meeting last month. “If we (DAQ) thought there was an imminent health hazard, nobody would be there,” he said. “There are lots of sources of dioxin/furan, everybody has dioxin in their body.” Expressing “sympathy” with the residents, Burge said, “They’ve purchased their homes and they’ve got a group of doctors telling them they’re going to die or have terrible things happen to them ... Having a group of doctors or Greenaction let you know constantly, ‘hey this stuff will kill ya.’ I feel bad for the residents.” 

I feel bad for the residents too, because the person who is supposed to be protecting them from the known hazards of Stericycle’s pollution, Burge, is utterly undeterred by his own complete lack of medical expertise. Not only is Burge not a doctor, there isn’t a single physician in the entire DAQ.

In contrast, UPHE is the largest civic organization of health care professionals in the state, with hundreds of doctors who have evaluated thousands of studies on the health consequences of pollution and environmental toxics, including those produced by incinerators like Stericycle.

Nationwide, more than 98 percent of all medical waste incinerators have closed in the last 15 years due to increased understanding of the toxicity of their emissions, and the availability of safer ways to dispose of hospital waste. But the deadly smoke continues to rise from Stericycle, which is now importing waste from eight surrounding states. 

Thanks to people like Burge, 21st-Century public “enlightenment” on the dangers of incinerator emissions has bypassed Utah. It is clear that if North Salt Lake residents are to rid themselves of the proven, toxic burden of Stericycle, as thousands of communities have throughout the country, they will have to demand a state government that actually believes in science. 

Comments-icon Post a Comment
August 02, 2013
I am new to the area but found these comments and editorials interesting. It is even more interesting a group of doctors have taken up this cause more or less against a facility incinerating medical waste. Seems like a strong group to have supporting the cause.

From an air emissions standpoint, Permits are tricky things and usually the provisions in them are limited to the technology to measure emissions at the time the permit was written. Air modeling and emission abatement technology outpaces regulators in almost every facet of manufacturing. I have worked on similar problems for a very large company not in this state. Those of you with an interest need to appeal to the "Good Neighbor" and have them be transparent with their data and their practices. Measure them! Just how good of a neighbor are they by using metrics (have not seen any measurements or data so far). Are they, as good neighbors, willing to go beyond their permit limitations in terms of monitoring, improved air modeling, and more importantly air abatement equipment. All of those things are possibilities.

i am sure if there are epidemiologists on the panel with the doctors that are interested in this, the will quickly explain that trying to pin malady "x" on emission constituent "y" is a long and uncertain process. What would be preferred and faster path would be to have them improve their emissions consistently over time at a pace that is cutting edge, vs doing the bare minimum.

Food for thought.
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