JUST WHEN medical waste incinerators are going the way of dinosaurs, Baltimore is being stalked by the Tyrannosaurus rex of polluting technologies. The unusual saga of Baltimore's Phoenix Services incinerator - the largest medical waste incinerator in the country - is about to reach a new level of public scrutiny, and the stakes are high for the health of local families.
City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger has introduced an ordinance to reduce the geographic area served by Phoenix from the current 250-mile radius - which includes New York City and other major metropolitan areas along the Eastern seaboard - to eight counties within Maryland.
This is an important first step toward putting the long-embattled incinerator to rest and converting the community to safer non-incineration technologies. Local businessman Samuel K. Himmelrich Jr., who was lauded for integrating green building concepts, has acquired Phoenix with the intention of potentially expanding the incinerator and adding pollution-control devices to make it state of the art.
But this is comparable to sticking a filter on a cigarette and calling it safe. No matter how high-tech, there is no way to stop incinerators from emitting dangerous pollutants such as dioxin and mercury. Medical waste incinerators are a leading source of dioxin - a known human carcinogen that is linked to learning disabilities, intelligence deficits and reproductive problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It says no level of dioxin exposure can be considered safe.
The Phoenix incinerator, situated off Hawkins Point Road in Curtis Bay, is responsible for about 5 percent of the mercury pollution coming from the smokestacks in the state and for contaminating fish in the Chesapeake Bay, according to a recent study by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. One in eight American women already has enough mercury in her body to pose a risk of neurological damage to a fetus if she were to become pregnant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported.
Incinerators also emit particulate matter linked to asthma, a disease that impacts Baltimore disproportionately, affecting 8 percent to 15 percent of children. At least six studies have shown that children living near incinerators have an elevated occurrence of various respiratory problems.
Baltimore's hospitals are locked into arcane 20-year "put or pay" contracts with Phoenix that require the hospitals to pay money if they don't feed the beast with an agreed-upon amount of waste, called guaranteed annual tonnage. As hospitals nationwide work to reduce and recycle waste, Baltimore-area hospitals are being forced by their contracts to burn nearly all of their waste.
It's time to release Baltimore from the Phoenix incinerator's grip and to follow the national trend away from incineration. Since the mid-1990s, the number of incinerators in the United States has decreased from more than 5,000 to 110; merely 13 are large commercially run facilities, with Phoenix the biggest.
An example of the anti-incineration trend came a few months ago when Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich demanded that all of the state's hospitals close their incinerators and switch to safer technologies.
The Chicago Tribune editorialized in favor of the closures, saying: "Burning waste is about the worst possible way to dispose of it from a health standpoint, short of dumping it in the street." The newspaper noted that Governor Blagojevich had seized upon a "no-lose" situation.
The Baltimore City Council is in a similar no-lose situation. Council members have before them an important opportunity to reduce pollution in the city and help local hospitals work toward finding a safer solution to their medical waste dilemma.
Barbara Sattler is director of the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore. Anna Gilmore Hall is executive director of Health Care Without Harm in Washington. Both are registered nurses.