NORTH SALT LAKE — Several doctors and three officials from medical waste incinerator Stericycle stood before more than 100 people at a meeting about the company the last week.
One after the other, the doctors warned of problems that could come from the chemicals Stericycle is allowed to emit, including breast cancers, behavioral problems in children and much more.
They pointed to data such Utah’s high rate of autism — the highest in the nation.
They also said that there are no safe levels of the toxins such as dioxin, which are emitted by Stericycle, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality allow it.
Less than a week later, many of the people at the meeting are ready to take their message to the streets.
Tuesday evening, they plan to join together for a protest in front of the business.
“The Heat is On!” wrote organizer Natasha Hincks Henderson on a Facebook page about the event, which is sponsored by Communities for Clean Air and Greenaction. “The townhall meeting last Thursday got the ball rolling. Stericycle is sweating bullets. Now we need to keep the pressure on”
The march will be at 5:30, 90 North, 1100 West North Salt Lake.
Last week, representatives from Stericycle spoke before the doctors took their turn.
“It is highly regulated and it is something we take very seriously,” said Selin Hoboy, vice president of legislative affairs for Stericycle.
She added that Stericycle has come into compliance with all regulations and that it intends to stay and “be a good neighbor in the community.”
She also told the crowd that while Stericycle receives and incinerates medical waste from other states, it sends waste that can be sterilized using the steam technology autoclaving away from Utah.
Stericycle speakers also explained the company’s incineration process, with diagrams. Containers come into the facility in marked containers. From there, waste moves to two incineration chambers.
The resulting smoke goes first through a dry scrubbing system, the heart of which is sodium bicarbonate, then into an electrostatic precipitator, which removes more particles from the smoke, the company officials said. There, fly ash is produced and collected and the next step is a gas absorber. Then, the “scrubbed exhaust” escapes into the air.”
“That is the primarily water vapor that you see going out the stack at the top of the building,” a Stericycle representative said.
Bountiful anesthesiologist Tyler Yeates was one of several doctors to speak afterward.
The fine particles that escape through Stericycle’s multiple filters are dangerous, he said.
“Most of the particulate pollution from a waste incinerator falls into the most dangerous category of “ultrafine”, because this fraction is too small to be captured by filters,” he said. “Ultrafines are also the most likely to be inhaled deep into the lungs and penetrate into cells of the body and the most likely to carry absorbed particles of heavy metals.”
This can lead to problems such as childhood cancer, still births, birth defects and learning disabilities, and all have been documented in populations near waste incinerators.
If Stericycle emissions are causing such problems, the danger isn’t limited to Foxboro, the neighborhood surrounding the incinerator. One study showed twice the levels of dioxin in the breast milk of tribeswomen who live 300 miles from the nearest incinerator, compared to a control group, said Dr. Cris Cowley.
Obstetrician Kirtley Jones, an obstetrician from Salt Lake City, said that heavy metals can be absorbed through the placenta of pregnant women and are very harmful to fetuses, because they concentrate in fat cells. Even in one exposure, heavy metals can “change the chemical envelope of the chromosomes, and alter their destiny as the foundation of that person’s intellect, personality, behavior and emotional well being,” she said. “That autism may be one of those end results is entirely consistent with previous well-established research.”
She and the other doctors have seen evidence in their own offices.
“We’ve had a rise in couples with difficulty getting pregnant and poor air quality,” Jones said.
Several of the doctors spoke about emissions from the refineries during the meeting.
“The concentration of five oil refineries, I-15, Legacy Parkway, nearby Hill AFB, and numerous smaller industries, all emitting pollution that converge on South Davis and North Salt Lake make this area a true pollution hot spot,” said Dr. Scott Hurst, an anesthesiologist from Salt Lake City. “Perhaps it is not surprising then that Stericycle as a relatively minor ingredient in the larger pollution stew, often flies under the radar of citizens, public health advocates, and regulators. That should never have been the case, but especially now that Stericycle has been caught by the Division of Air Quality falsifying records and emitting 400 percent more dioxins than their permit allows.”
The doctors are part of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, led by local activist Dr. Brian Moench. He added to their concerns that a medical waste incinerator such as Stericycle are allowed to emit as much lead as a full-size coal-bruning power plant.
“It is long overdue that the incinerator part of this facility be shut down,” he said to roaring applause.
After the doctors spoke, Harold Burge, source compliance manager for the air quality division, took the podium. He explained that pollution standards aren’t set based on medical research but on how feasible it is for emitters to control the pollutants. The EPA and state division then set standards.
To force polluters to improve on those standards, some of which were set in the 1970s, the government watches for violations, such as the ones Stericycle is alleged to have committed. Officials then trade fines owed for the implementation of better emissions control.
“Nobody’s dropped the ball,” he said. “We are always looking for better ways and we are always looking for better technologies.”