Medical Waste Incineration

At a public hearing convened by the Planning and Regional Affairs Committee on November 29, 1994, public testimony was heard on the general subject of medical waste incinerators and more specifically regarding a request from Northwest Hospital. Incineration was a preferred method for disposing of medical waste because it destroyed the physical and chemical hazards of the waste, killed pathogens and reduced the volume of waste by 90-95%. As air quality regulations became more restrictive, public opposition to the practice increased. At this hearing, the public debates a request from Northwest Hospital to operate an incinerator. Many voices were heard, including residents, mothers, representatives of Greenpeace, the Washington Toxics Coalition, Seattle Citizens for Quality Living, community organizations and lawyers, among others. Only a few voices are in the excerpt below. The incinerator was closed permanently in 1999.

Excerpts from Public Hearing, November 29, 1994

Dr. Glover Barnes: Members of the Council, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Glover Barnes. I live at 3415 South McClellan. I am a biological scientist. I am associated with, but not necessarily a representative of, several institutions in the Seattle area. I am vice president of the Seattle Community Council Federation for whom I suppose I speak... A major component of the effluent resulting from the incineration of medical waste is a confirmed carcinogen. It has been experimentally shown to affect prenatal development in animals and to induce endometriosis in monkeys, our first and second cousins.

Committee Chair Councilmember Street: Which one is the second cousin?

Dr. Glover Barnes: The apes are our first cousins and monkeys are our second. Dioxin and its relatives...has even been found in the food chain through the contamination of sediment in our lakes, rivers and their tributaries... As an immunologist I am aware also that one of the side effects of dioxin is immunosuppression - in other words, impairment of the immune system... I think what we are talking about now is survival of the human race, and I am not an alarmist but I think that we have done so many things to our environment that we need to stop and begin looking at what we are doing to our environment. Some of these effects can be cumulative and dioxin is a perfect one for that. Cumulative so that no amount of dioxin is acceptable in the environment and that's not just from the EPA. We must find an alternative to our present method of waste disposal through incineration. That is, there must be absolute control of dioxin and other toxic substances in the effluent.

Brent Carson: Councilmembers, Brent Carson, 1011 Western Avenue, Suite 902, Seattle, representing Northwest Hospital this evening. I'd like to talk about three issues with you this evening and these are three reasons why we support the Mayor's recommendation to direct the PSAPCA to review this issue and then to properly regulate medical incinerators. First, who has the proper expertise? We're dealing here with a highly technical air pollution regulatory issue. It is an issue that is being dealt with at the federal level by the Environmental Protection Agency and at the local level by Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency. PSAPCA has that expertise and EPA has that expertise to make that determination. The City of Seattle does not have the appropriate expertise to regulate air emissions. Secondly, who has the legal authority with regard air pollution issues? The PSAPCA is directed by the State Legislature to be the air pollution control agency in this area. The City is pre-empted by the State Clean Air Act RCW 70.94.230 except under certain limited circumstances. There is no demonstrated uses by this facility and there are no facts to support that conclusion. If the city is to step in and start regulating air emissions from incinerators, where is the line drawn for the next regulation for the city? Is the city getting into the business of air pollution regulation or isn't it the State legislature's decision to place that in the hands of the PSAPCA, where Mayor Rice sits on the board. Thirdly, what is the power basis that the city would take action tonight or take action other than the mayor's recommended position? Though we have a lengthy analysis that was done by the City, it's important to point out that it was done on medical waste incineration, not on medical waste management. The question of how to manage medical waste has never been addressed by the City, was not addressed by the study. We pointed out during the proceedings for this study that there was such a study done. We included volumes from that study; it was done by the City of New York... Its conclusion was that medical waste incineration was the lowest risk method for managing medical waste in the city of New York, and that remains true today.

Liz Moses, Washington Toxics Coalition: Hi, I'm Liz Moses and I represent the Washington Toxics Coalition, a non-profit environmental organization and we work at 4516 University Way NE. I have a couple of points I'd like to make. The first is, according to the Department of Ecology, medical waste is covered under the solid waste management hierarchy outlined in RCW Chapter 70.95, solid waste management and reduction. This hierarchy requires generators to try to reduce the creation of that waste or recycle that waste before incineration. And then, generators are supposed to incinerate separated waste before they incinerate mixed waste. Thus the two Seattle hospitals that are currently using incineration are using the lowest possible strategy for handling their waste. Given the clear alternatives available to hospitals for source reduction and recycling, as well as alternative disposal methods available, there is no reason for any hospital to use incineration to deal with their waste.

Second, I need to bring up the dioxin reassessment once again. As you've already been told, incineration of solid medical and hazardous waste has all been identified as a significant source of dioxin. Dioxin is found in the emissions from the stack but it is also found in the ash that's left over. Medical waste was identified as the single largest source of dioxin. But I think more importantly is the devastating health effects that were documented in this reassessment. Cancer is just one of them. Immune system damage, impaired, lower ability to learn, lower sperm count, other reproductive impairment, endometriosis, physical deformities, have all been linked with dioxin-like compounds at levels that are very very low and once considered safe...

Listen to the entire meeting in Digital Collections. Citation: Public Hearing, November 29, 1994. Event ID 5174, Seattle City Council Legislative Department Audio Recordings (Record Series 4601-03).

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