Trash: Good Scare, But Was It Science?

COMMENT

March 13, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

About one hour into last week's "waste reduction workshop" at Anne Arundel Community College, I started thinking twice about all those times I've driven by the BRESCO incinerator with the windows down.

How much toxic mercury wafted into my lungs while I cruised blithely by?

How many itsy-bitsy particles of lead and arsenic are now conspiring to send me to an early grave?

Are the microscopic remains of somebody's polyfill sofa now racing around in my bloodstream?

Is it too late to buy a gas mask?

If the idea was to scare us all to death about incinerators, the seven environmental groups that put on the workshop did a good job. They brought out three passionate, persuasive expert scientists with resumes as long as smokestacks and let them unveil every known or suspected incinerator evil.

Did I come away from the workshop skeptical about the prospect of a waste-to-energy facility in Anne Arundel?

You bet.

But I'm still a ways from converting to the Green Gospel -- jTC namely, that incinerators pose unacceptable risks, that we should be able to solve all our garbage problems by composting and recycling and that, if we can't, we're better off burying the stuff than burning it. The case for each of these three tenets is less than complete, at least as presented at the workshop.

For example, the scientists do an excellent job explaining what comes out of an incinerator smokestack and what it can do to animals and people.

Indeed, my interest in gas masks peaked while Dr. Peter Montague, author of more than 200 articles on hazardous and solid waste problems, was explaining how burning turns harmless objects into toxic particles so small that 40,000 will fit on the dot above this "i" -- teensy enough to slip past natural barriers like the cilia in our noses and into our lungs and bloodstreams.

"Incineration is a very efficient means of getting strange objects like these chairs into your bloodstream," he said, referring to the theater seats in the Pascal Center.

Even creepier were some of the tales he told about an incinerator emission called dioxin.

The EPA, Dr. Montague said, has found that dioxin decreases fertility in animals and has caused birds, fish and mammals to start changing sex. A "single dose" of dioxin was shown to cause birth defects in rats, he said.

The problem is that not one piece of information was given to quantify the potential for danger -- to help us understand how many of those teensy toxic particles we have to inhale before the odds of getting cancer increase or before a male bird starts growing ovaries. Nobody told us how big or small that "single dose" of dioxin was.

For that matter, nobody said how many emissions typically are released from an incinerator, only that some of them will get past scrubbers and other protective devices.

So incinerators pose risks. So do car exhaust and a myriad other things that we continue to use because we believe their value far exceeds the possible dangers.

I'm not saying incinerators belong in this category; I don't know. But if the experts want to convince us that they do not, they need to provide hard data about what the real risks are. Then we need to decide what constitutes an acceptable risk.

But why take any chances when safe options like composting and recycling operations exist? Environmentalists believe up to 80 percent of all trash can be composted, recycled or avoided, and everyone agrees that composting plants cost a fraction of incinerators.

So what's the hitch?

According to Dr. Melvin Finstein, a composting expert and enthusiast and a professor of environmental science at Rutgers University, no one in the United States has ever built a good composting system. They're all "amateurish," he said.

"Don't think that every composting company that comes along is going to sell you a good system," Dr. Finstein added. "It's achievable and worth pursuing. But it's tough."

So whether composting/recycling can take care of the bulk of our trash needs is debatable. That brings us back to burning vs. burying.

"One thing you can say for a landfill is that it only contaminates a small area," Dr. Montague said. "Give me two choices -- put a hole in the ground and contaminate a small area of ground water, or burn it and spread it through the countryside -- and to me there's no choice."

The residents who live near the Millersville landfill, where ground water contamination has ruined property values and a safe water supply, probably choked on that statement. Ground water pollution is a nightmare, especially in Anne Arundel, where many aquifers flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

From a standpoint of risk and cost, the choice between landfilling and incineration is not crystal clear, partly because we haven't been given enough facts to make an informed choice.

The bottom line is: Be careful about siding with any of the players in the trash debate at this stage of the game. Listen critically to what they all have to say. Demand specific information. Make a final decision based on reason, not just emotion.

And if, in the meantime, it makes you feel better to crank up the windows when you ride past the BRESCO plant, go right ahead.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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