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The Life & Times of Spokanes Incinerator
About this report
Larry Shook is the former co-publisher and editor of Spokane Magazine. A veteran journalist and editor, his reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and The Washington Post, among other publications. Shook has written major investigative articles on Hanford, pesticides, forestry, the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project and efforts to protect Spokane area groundwater and lakes. He is the author of three books and the winner of a National Book Award.
Tim Connor is a veteran public interest researcher who specializes in environmental health issues. A former associate editor at Spokane Magazine, his reporting has appeared in a variety of national and regional publications, including The Oregonian, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and the Atlanta Constitution. Since 1992, he has been a member of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Preventions National Advisory Committee on Radiation Research. He is the author of Burdens of Proof, a 1997 report examining scientific and social issues associated with health studies on populations exposed to environmental pollution.
Shook and Connor are best known for their investigative reporting in the early-1980s focusing on plutonium production at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation - work that ultimately led to the 1986 disclosure that Hanford facilities released radiation into the air in the 1940s and 50s.
Shook and Connor were commissioned by the Northwest Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) to study Spokanes waste-to-energy plant. In the name of public awareness, The Inlander approached NEEF and offered to publish its complete, 12,000+-word report - an offer the NEEF Board accepted. The Inlander, which has offered the City of Spokane space in next weeks edition to respond to the findings of this report, plans to follow up on this story in the coming weeks with its own reporting.
The Northwest Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) is a new, Spokane-based nonprofit organization. Its purpose is to invigorate public discussion about the relationship between the health of communities and the environment of the Inland Northwest.
The staff, board and volunteers behind NEEF have been involved for decades in a variety of local and national projects aimed at promoting public health and environmental quality.
The foundation plans to follow up on the incinerator report by convening one or more public forums in the coming year. It also plans a bimonthly newsletter for supporters of the organization. If you are interested in knowing more about this issue or about participating in future public programs, please contact NEEF at (509) 363-0121.
The Making of an Incinerator
A decade ago it was the hottest topic in Spokane - a bitter controversy that opened a deep rift in the citys civic and political life. Advocates insisted that the waste-to-energy project was the only practical way to solve the citys garbage crisis. Opponents worried that it would confront the community with unjustified health and financial risks.
Time has brought some answers into clearer focus, and this report - split into two parts, health and money - aims to shed more light on questions about the plant. But it also raises a whole new set of questions based on operating practices at the plant over the past seven years.
Part One: Mystery waste
On August 22, 1997, Eric Skelton sat down to his word processor and composed a strong letter to the eastern regional office of the Washington state Department of Ecology.
Skelton is the director of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority (SCAPCA), the agency responsible for making sure state and federal clean air laws are locally obeyed. Practically speaking, Skelton may be the only real law standing between the people of Spokane and the illegal shipment of dangerous wastes across an international border.
Skelton was alarmed; he had learned unofficially that Spokane was burning diesel-soaked rags from British Columbia. No one could say for sure what this released into Spokanes air. Worse, no one even stopped to ask.
"By this letter," he wrote Anthony R. Grover, the Department of Ecologys new director east of the Cascades, "I am informing Ecology that I am unable to certify that the [incinerator] complies with [the law] when the waste stream is materially altered by the addition of special wastes."
The question of "special wastes" had been an issue with the countys chief air quality control officer for more than two years. In January, 1994, former Solid Waste System Manager Phil Williams informed Skelton he was considering burning 1,056 tons of Canadian pesticide containers in the incinerator. Skelton instructed him not to do it without SCAPCAs prior evaluation of the material. Williams burned the containers without any prior evaluation. Plant workers later reported nausea and headaches associated with the incident.
Skelton sought outside legal review of the matter. On April 6, 1994, Laurie Halvorson, an attorney for the Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency, sent him a 17-page legal opinion concluding that the City of Spokane had broken the law by burning the containers.
Skelton issued the citys Solid Waste System a citation. In response, the city rejected Skeltons authority. System Manager Phil Williams said Skeltons action raised questions about who really was in charge at the incinerator. (Williams was fired last November for having an affair with Kathryn Kelly, the principal scientist hired to conduct the incinerators health study. See "Dangerous liaison," above.)
Meanwhile, the city obtained a legal opinion of its own, from Preston Thorgrimson Shidler Gates & Ellis. The venerable Seattle law firm served as legal counsel on the sale of Spokanes incinerator bonds, and opined that Skelton was wrong and that the city had not violated the law.
That was good enough for the SCAPCA Board. Skelton was ordered to withdraw his citation, and the board told him not to sue over imported wastes unless the state Department of Ecology better defined them.
In explaining SCAPCAs reasoning, former city councilman and then-SCAPCA board member Mike Brewer (who was reelected to the board last week) asked why the city would want to fine itself for violating the law. This points up a fundamental issue at the incinerator: will local regulators look the other way if protecting the publics health jeopardizes the facilitys operations?
When Eric Skelton learned of the diesel rag burn last summer, he concluded it was time for the DOE to confront these burning practices. Since the SCAPCA Board had all but yanked his authority, by writing the strong letter to his supervisor, Skelton was going out on a limb. He couldnt ignore the troubling assessment, as he wrote Grover, that operations at the incinerator were undertaken "with minimal consideration of potential air quality impacts."
At the heart of this debate is the question of what actually constitutes special waste. The answer depends on who you ask.
Legally, attorney Craig Trueblood of Preston Thorgrimson pointed out in 1994 that "The ‘revised definition of ‘acceptable waste remains very broad..."
So broad, in fact, that you could haul boxcars of Canadian waste through it. Many things considered dangerous in Canada - oil field filters for instance - metamorphose into "municipal solid waste" once they enter the U.S.
Dr. Harriet Ammann of the Department of Social and Health Services, Washingtons senior toxicologist, says science is on Skeltons side. Ammann is the health advisor to whom the DOE has said it will defer in resolving the issue of burning special wastes.
"If you dont know what youre burning, and youre not taking measurements of the stacks while youre burning mystery fuel, then you dont know whats coming out," Ammann says. If unknown materials go into the burner between tests, she adds, "I cant tell you what the health impact is."
If Spokanes plant is going to operate safely, knowing what is burned seems an obvious public protection. Yet finding out is, at the moment, all but impossible.
Asked recently if it is fair to say the incinerator has operated in a state of regulatory limbo since last August, Skelton answered, "Yes."
The authors of this report were pointed in the direction of special wastes and the Canadian connection by a veteran of Spokanes salvage business. He informed us, in gruff descriptions seasoned with profanity, that the pesticide containers and diesel-soaked rags from Canada were just the tip of the iceberg.
"Contact Customs at the Port of Blaine and tell them you want to see the invoices for the waste shipments coming from Canada to the Spokane incinerator. Thatll show you what Im talking about."
What followed was a baffling series of exchanges with U.S. Customs officials in Blaine, just north of Bellingham. First, over the phone, a senior cargo inspector said such invoices couldnt be disclosed because they were protected as confidential business information.
But this was a publicly owned facility. How could trash going through it be considered confidential?
"What exactly are you looking for?" asked the inspector.
Invoices showing the amount of municipal solid waste being shipped from Canada to Spokanes incinerator, the inspector was told.
"Oh," came the reply. "Thats an interesting case... youre talking about trainloads of waste."
The cargo inspector, who requested anonymity, claimed to know exactly which documents would verify these shipments but said the records couldnt be released without permission from Jay Brandt, a senior Customs administrator at Blaine.
"You should know," offered the inspector, "that theres not even any authorization to inspect this stuff. We just look at the invoice and pass it through. We dont really have any way of knowing for sure whats in the shipment. Hospital waste, for example, might be classified as textiles. Some of us dont agree with that, but a political decision was made in this country [the U.S.] to do it that way."
Bob Jamesson, the U.S. Customs Freedom of Information Act officer at the Port of Blaine, said that if Jay Brandt wanted to help, he could release the records. But Jamesson added, "you might want to get some elected officials involved in backing your request." Jamesson added that if he lived in Spokane he would be concerned and upset.
Brandt refused to release the documents. He required a formal Freedom of Information Act request to be filed, which was done by fax and mail on September 29, 1997. Senator Patty Murray wrote Customs supporting the request. Customs reply, dated October 16, 1997, and signed by Jamesson: "Please be advised that we have no records responsive to your request."
The law being cited in this refusal, Jamesson subsequently explained, was the Business Information clause of the Trade Secrets Act. Because a private company had contracted with Spokane to run its incinerator, and because private companies were brokering the shipment of wastes here, Jamesson said the companies - even Canadian companies - were entitled to have the contents of those shipments kept secret. Jamesson explained that neither elected officials (mayors, city council members, state or federal representatives) nor regulators could have routine access to records of these shipments. Only law enforcement personnel conducting a criminal investigation could.
In other words, current U.S. law prevents systematic oversight of international waste shipments into the U.S.
Was he saying that private businessmen contracting with the city enjoyed greater rights than the citizens whose money was being spent and whose health needed protecting?
"My understanding is that they do," said Jamesson.
The Freedom of Information Act denial is under appeal.
Damon Taam, manager of the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System, denies there were ever "trainloads" of Canadian waste. "We may get one or two semis a month," he says.
But Taam acknowledges that he has no records of what actually was in the Canadian waste that so far has been burned here. He notes the incinerator regularly accepts wastes, including petroleum-contaminated materials, from Oregon, Idaho, "and other areas in the United States." Special waste shipments from several Eastern Washington counties are also part of the incinerators normal operations. Asked why Spokane is taxing itself to offer this municipal service to other regions, Taam responded that waste has become a commodity. "Spokane is not an island," he explained. "Spokane is part of the United States."
But Canada is signatory to the Basel (Switzerland) Convention, an international waste shipment treaty that makes it illegal to ship wastes from a protective jurisdiction to a more lax one. (The U.S. is not a signatory.)
The special waste shipments that have come into Spokane from Canada appear to fall into this category.
Bovar Waste Management operates a hazardous waste incinerator in Swan Hills, Alberta. Swan Hills had been burning about a third of Albertas oil field filters when its managers learned that the waste broker handling the refuse, Hazco of Calgary, was also shipping about a third of the volume to Spokane. Swan Hills charges $1,000-$1,800 per ton to dispose of the filters. Spokane charged $131 per ton to burn them.
"If I were a resident of Spokane, Id be concerned," says Bovar president Monty Davis. "Id want proof that the emissions and ash were safe."
Alison Walker, Hazcos regulatory affairs director, concedes that if Spokanes incinerator was operating in Calgary, Canadian environmental officials would probably require a test burn of the material. She disputes, however, that the wastes Hazco has sent here add to the danger of what was already being burned. Her reason? "Municipal solid waste is actually a very scary thing."
Just how sensitive waste export practices have become in Canada can be seen in the Canadian Auditor Generals report last October to the House of Commons. In chapter four of that report, "Little Chance of Detecting Illegal Traffic of Hazardous Waste at the Border," Auditor General Denis Desautels wrote: "Canada is not in a position to know the extent to which it is living up to its international obligations to prevent illegal traffic in the transboundary movement of hazardous waste. Environment Canada [Canadas EPA] is not always sure whether shipments of hazardous wastes reach their final destination or are properly disposed of or recycled... there is little chance of detecting illegal traffic of hazardous waste at border points... Effective sampling of potentially illegal exports and imports is very limited."
"Environment Canada doesnt characterize the waste being shipped out of the country," says Stefan Gingras of Great Lakes United, a large U.S./Canadian environmental coalition. "The government trusts industry to do that. Hazardous Canadian waste could easily be sent to the Spokane incineator without anyone knowing and with very little risk to the shippers."
Gingras points out that everything about hazardous waste - handling, transportation, disposal, insurance - is subsantially more expensive than other waste. Because of that, the market incentives to mislabel it far outweigh the chances and costs of getting caught.
When the wind is calm and the smoke rises straight up from the stark concrete structure looming on the citys western horizon, it appears as though a giant exclamation point is being printed on the sky. This is something of an illusion, for the incinerators plume actually represents a question mark.
A win for Skelton
The local media received the faxes Monday morning. The press was invited to a meeting of the Solid Waste Liaison Board in City Hall, where officials from the city, the state Department of Ecology, the Spokane Health District and the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority (SCAPCA) announced that a deal had been reached in the four-month mediation on the issue at the heart of the mystery waste controversy.
"Under this agreement," SCAPCA Director Eric Skelton announced, "the Alberta dangerous oil field waste will no longer be burned here."
Skelton says the agreement, which still needs to be accepted by the city and the county, means the Canadian border will be closed to special waste shipments.
Other wastes from inside the U.S. that are in any way dissimilar to the solid, non-dangerous wastes generated in the county, like pesticide containers, will also be banned.
Tony Grover, Eastern Washingtons regional director for the state Department of Ecology, told the gathering that it is "good news for the citizens of Spokane about their government, and good news about how their waste is handled."
The announcement does call into question how much and what kind of special waste was burned at the Spokane incinerator since SCAPCA first contested the practice in 1994. Asked as he left the meeting whether the DOE would help deal with what is still unknown about the wastes burned at the incinerator over the past seven years, Grover was non-committal.
"Were not going to dedicate a lot of resources to that," he answered.
Spokane is having a hard time breaking off its affair with Kathryn Kelly
One morning last October, Spokane residents learned that instead of getting the health study they were promised on the effects of the waste-to-energy plant, they were getting a sex scandal. That study, a condition of the $60 million state grant that helped build the plant, was already two years overdue when the news broke that Kathryn Kelly, the toxicologist hired for the job, was having an affair with city trash boss Phil Williams.
In the aftermath of that revelation, Williams, a 12-year city employee, lost his job. But Kelly didnt lose hers.
The City of Spokane has decided to let Kelly complete the sensitive project. Meanwhile, Williams has filed a lawsuit against the city, asking for his job back and damages.
Although Spokane City Manager Bill Pupo said that he knew of the affair for more than a year, it wasnt until after the Spokesman-Review reported it that he fired Williams.
As bad as this looked, it would look even worse in early December. In another front page story, The Spokesman-Review reported what several critics of incineration around the country had known for some time - Kathryn Kelly was not a neutral scientist. She was a lobbyist for commercial incinerator interests and an unshrinking proponent of waste incineration.
In the wake of the scandal, while city and state officials wondered how they would finish the study, others wondered how Spokane could have been kept in the dark about the controversies that seemed to follow Kelly wherever she went.
In the summer of 1991, the year after winning the Spokane contract, Kelly performed an interesting service for TXI, a Dallas-based company that burns hazardous waste for fuel in cement kilns. She helped craft a newspaper ad that tried to present air pollution data in a way favorable to TXI. It wasnt illegal, but it provided a disquieting look at Kelly in the dual role of scientist and industry public relations consultant.
There was another problem for Kelly in Texas, and it would follow her all the way to Montana. In August, 1992, she received a letter from the Texas Air Control Board (TACB) criticizing a manuscript of hers endorsing the burning of hazardous wastes in cement kilns. There were, wrote the TACB, "a number of errors and misleading statements" in the report and, on whole, the board did "not feel comfortable with the tone of your review, nor do we agree with the conclusions you have drawn."
Months later, while working as a lobbyist for another cement kiln company, Kelly would reference the Texas Air Control Board for conclusions about the safety of hazardous waste burning in an op-ed article for a Montana newspaper. This time, her client was trying to win public and legislative support for a controversial proposal to burn hazardous wastes in a cement kiln in central Montana.
Opponents of the incineration plan in Montana contacted the Texas Air Control Board and requested a review of Kellys writings. Once again, the TACB went on record as saying that statements and data Kelly was attributing to it "have been taken out of context and misinterpreted."
When the TACB reply was brought to the attention of Montana Senator Don Bianchi, Bianchi announced he would seek to have Kelly disciplined for unprofessional conduct. The charges brought by Bianchi were later dismissed, but the flap over Kellys alleged misrepresentations to the Montana legislature made front page news in at least two of the states daily newspapers.
All of these events took place during the time Kelly was under contract to Spokane for the independent health study on its garbage incinerator.
And theres more. In June, 1995, Kelly wrote an op-ed article for the Wall Street Journal entitled "Cleaning Up EPAs Dioxin Mess." It was a withering assault on EPAs effort to conduct a thorough scientific analysis of a hazardous substance - dioxin (see "Meet Dioxin," below). Focusing on a three-volume draft report that EPA had delivered to its Science Advisory Board in 1994, Kelly wrote:
"EPAs position is that current levels of exposure are already posing unacceptable risks; the agency limits human daily intake of these widespread compounds to an amount equivalent to one billionth of a grain of sand. The cost of complying with these rules already stands at several billion dollars in the U.S. alone. If EPAs claim of additional health effects had been found to be valid, it would have given the agency justification for requiring even lower dioxin emissions from papermills, incinerators and other regulated sources."
There was, as Kelly wrote, some criticism by the Science Advisory Board of parts of the EPA review. But where other observers found EPAs work mostly sound and the criticisms part of the normal give and take of the scientific review process, Kelly found "a stunning indictment of the lack of defensible science in setting EPA policy."
Her article brought a strong rebuke not just from top officials at EPA but from Morton Lippman of the New York University School of Medicine, the chairman of the very panel that Kelly wrote had rendered the "stunning indictment" of EPAs dioxin reassessment.
"EPA should be commended for the well-targeted research that it has published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature on this important topic," Lippman replied in a July 6, 1995, letter to the Journal, "and Ms. Kellys mischaracterization of this research as policy or politically driven is misguided and misleading."
The professional part of the relationship between Kelly and Spokanes Phil Williams led to the two co-authoring a paper presented in May, 1997, at the International Incineration Conference in Oakland. The paper, offered as a summary of the "final investigation" for the Spokane health impacts assessment, heralded the study as "unique" among the health risk assessments done to date at U.S. garbage incinerators.
Rather than relying upon the "very conservative assumptions" built into U.S. EPA guidelines for conducting such assessments, the two noted that they had used "actual" emissions data from the Spokane plant to calculate health risks. Substituting the "actual" emissions for the hypothetical emissions a typical analysis would use, they reported, resulted in calculations showing that the risk to the nearest resident of the Spokane plant is 500 times below levels considered protective of human health.
Where did the numbers for the "actual" emissions reported by Williams and Kelly come from?They were taken from limited annual stack tests (see "Stack test," page 10). Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but for the two stack tests - 1993 and 1995 - that Williams and Kelly selected, the dioxin release measurements were considerably smaller than if theyd used stack test results from 1994 and 1996. Why were those years omitted? There was no explanation in their paper.
Mike Hibbler, the Washington Department of Ecology official overseeing the health study for the state, says the Kelly/Williams conference paper was offered as the final report of the multi-year study, but that Ecology found it unacceptable. Until an acceptable report is provided, Hibbler says, Ecology will continue to withhold $300,000 of state grant funds allotted for the incinerator.
"The study will be based on hard data," Hibbler explains, and if this hard data is "manipulated," he expects that a review by the states toxicologist, Dr. Harriet Ammann, will detect it. He said the state expects a final draft of the study in late April.
When Spokane learned of the Williams/Kelly affair and Kellys relationship with the incineration industry last fall, there was a question about who would finish the overdue health study. That question, says Hibbler, was resolved in a meeting with several city officials, led by Spokane City Manager Bill Pupo, shortly after Phil Williams was fired.
Kelly is a well-credentialed toxicologist with a doctorate degree in public health from Columbia University. Still, a restrained interpretation of her contract with Spokane is that the city should not be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a health study led by a lobbyist and public proponent of incineration. The purpose of the study, after all, was to provide Spokanes citizens with a credible answer to their health concerns about the plant.
Yet just as public officials in Columbus, Ohio, lost sight of their responsibility to protect public health (see "The Columbus syndrome," page 12), officials in Spokane reacted to the Kelly/Williams fiasco as though it were a public relations problem rather than a signal that the public interest might have been compromised.
Meet Dioxin - A most political poison
Dioxin isnt the only toxic substance released by incinerators, but it is the one that most warrants attention and respect. Burning garbage doesnt strike most of us as a particularly new or hazardous activity, but it isnt the burning part thats new. Whats new is the chlorine in modern products that ends up in our garbage.
Noted scientist Barry Commoner, whose research institute has extensively studied the chemical and thermal dynamics of municipal waste incinerators, explained it this way in his 1992 book, Making Peace with the Planet:
"Dioxin is actually synthesized in [a] trash-burning incinerator by a reaction between a common constituent of paper and wood (and therefore of trash) lignen - and chlorine derived from the combustion of chlorinated plastic, such as polyvinyl chloride. This is something new; trash incineration has been going on for many years, but according to analyses of dated sediments in the Great Lakes, dioxin first appeared in the U.S. environment between 1930 and 1940, increasing a great deal since then. The increase parallels the production of chlorinated organic chemicals such as polyvinyl chloride by the petrochemical industry. About one-fourth of the polyvinyl chloride is used for packaging; discarded into the trash stream, it has turned the incinerators into dioxin factories."
Given the presence of chlorine and the other dioxin ingredients in the waste stream, experts agree that incomplete combustion is the primary cause for the creation of dioxins and the closely related class of hazardous substances known as furans.
"Dioxin is a very stable structure," observes Pat Costner, a former Shell Oil Company chemist who studies incineration issues for Greenpeace. The less efficient the combustion process, she explains, the more "fragments" of dioxin ingredients are present in the mix of particulates and gases created in incinerator furnaces. As the exhaust stream cools, "These fragments want to assume the most stable configuration they can, and among the more stable configurations are the dioxins and furans."
As a human poison, dioxin is perhaps best known for its connection with the Vietnam-era defoliant the U.S. military nicknamed "Agent Orange." A mixture of herbicides with small amounts of dioxin, Agent Orange became controversial as Vietnam veterans reported suspicious cancers and other health problems among themselves and their children.
A panel of the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine found in 1994 that there was sufficient evidence from the Agent Orange studies to link exposure to the dioxin-laden herbicides to increases in three types of cancers. In March, 1996, the panel also found evidence linking Agent Orange exposure to neurological damage in veterans and the congenital birth defect spina bifada in their offspring.
Studies of other populations exposed to dioxin - most notably a large study of U.S. chemical workers exposed in industrial settings - have provided stronger evidence that dioxin can either cause cancer or indirectly promote the development of cancer in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer recently declared dioxin a known human carcinogen, an assessment validated by the U.S. National Toxicology Program.
As with most other known or suspected carcinogens, it is animal studies (which can be done in much greater numbers and with much tighter controls) that provide better evidence of dioxins extraordinary cancer causing properties. In test animals, dioxin has been shown to promote cancer formation at doses so low they are measured in a few parts per trillion. (A drop of water in 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools is roughly equivalent to one part per trillion.) No other synthetic chemical comes close to demonstrating such potent cancer promotion properties.
The cancer potency dioxin displays in animal tests is reflected in current state and federal regulations that limit human exposures. Of the nearly 600 hazardous chemicals indexed in the Washington Department of Ecologys guidance for toxic waste regulation, dioxin is by far the most tightly regulated. Under the risk-based formulas developed for enforcing the states Model Toxics Control Act, the purest form of dioxin (the 2,3,7,8 TCDD molecule) is considered more than 20,000 times as potent as benzo(a)pyrene, the best-documented carcinogen in cigarette smoke. Using standardized risk equations developed for regulatory purposes, dioxin is considered to be at least as potent a carcinogen - gram for gram - as plutonium-239, the infamous radioactive element feared as much for its toxicity as for its destructive potential in nuclear weapons.
But it isnt dioxins extraordinary potency as a promoter of cancer that concerns scientists most. Among the more profound (and in some cases tragic) biological discoveries over the past two decades are studies showing that dioxin and other similar synthetic substances, at extremely small doses, interfere with the intricate chemical messenger system that controls how humans and other organisms regulate their growth and development. In some cases, the outcome of this interference is cancer, but cancer is only one of a myriad of potentially devastating health effects. The technical term for these phenomena is "endocrine disruption."
The problem with dioxin and other synthetic chemicals that mimic hormones is that they fool receptors into binding with them rather than the bodys natural hormones. They can therefore cause a variety of unwanted biological responses. On the basis of animal studies with mice, rats and monkeys, one of the specific unwanted responses dioxin is suspected of causing is endometriosis - the affliction in women where tissue that is supposed to grow only in the lining of the uterus begins growing in abnormal locations such as the abdominal wall or fallopian tubes.
Helping people understand the endocrine-disrupting effects of dioxin is challenging, says Dr. Ted Schettler, a Boston physician and public advocate on environmental health issues, because it is not a simple kind of poisoning.
"What I try to do is describe how and why receptor-based toxicology is important and why single molecules matter," he explains. "Dioxin isnt killing cells, its interfering with the machinery of cells. Its a different kind of toxicology to think about."
The debate over dioxin now looms as one of the most important (and, some say, most politicized) environmental health questions faced by modern society. On one side is the growing scientific evidence indicating that dioxin can cause health effects at extraordinarily low levels. On the other side are wary industries that rely on chlorine.
Ironically, it was requests from industry groups representing chlorine-based manufacturers that prompted then-U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly to announce in April, 1991, that the EPA would begin a thorough scientific reassessment of the health risks posed by dioxin. The expectations were that the EPA would agree with industry scientists that cancer risks assigned to dioxin had been overstated.
Those industry expectations were dashed in 1994 when the EPA released the draft report of its reassessment - a 2,000-page analysis combining the work of more than 100 university, government and private scientists.
"The three-year, $4 million reassessment was supposed to clear up a long-standing controversy over dioxins carcinogenicity and determine if there was a safe level for human exposure," BioScience magazine reported in December, 1994. "The study failed to resolve this issue conclusively, and instead it raised significant new concerns about the effects of dioxin on the reproductive, neurological, and immune systems."
Among the draft study findings:
• Municipal and medical waste incinerators were the largest known sources of dioxin emissions to the environment.
• Some health effects associated with dioxin "have been observed in laboratory animals and humans at or near levels to which people in the general population are exposed."
• Additional evidence supported the conclusion that dioxin is a probable cause of cancer in humans.
• Because dioxin and dioxin-like compounds accumulate through the food chain and are stored in human fat cells, exposure of infants to dioxin through breast milk is a pathway of special concern.
The still-accumulating science on dioxins potential for causing harm at extremely low doses clearly presents the EPA and other regulating agencies charged with the protection of public health with a profound problem. If, as the science suggests, dioxin levels in the general population are at or approaching levels where health effects have been observed, then how should facilities like incinerators that create and release dioxin to the environment be regulated?
The release of the EPAs long-awaited final report on the dioxin reassessment was expected in 1995 but has been postponed several times since.
Stephen Lester, science director for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a public watchdog organization that has closely followed the dioxin reassessment, says the continued delay postpones the day of reckoning for public health agencies and dioxin-releasing industries.
"In the meantime," says Lester, "people continue to be exposed to dioxin at potentially harmful levels while the agencies continue to delay making any decisions about how to regulate dioxin exposures."
The latest word from the EPAs Office of Health and Environmental Assessment is that a revised version of the report will go to the EPAs Science Advisory Board in late summer, with a public release planned on the Internet (www.epa.gov/airlinks) by the end of 1998.
Stack Test - Monitoring the waste-to-energy plant
What comes up the stack at Spokanes waste-to-energy plant? The answer comes from two sources. For the pollutants that make up about 90 percent of the facilitys air emissions (nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide), the plants continuous emissions monitoring (CEM) system provides a constant record of what leaves the plants 170-foot smokestack. Based on release rates provided to the plants regulators, the incinerator adds about 500 tons - one million pounds - of pollution annually to Spokanes air (see "Annual releases" graphic, right).
Unfortunately, the substances that, ounce-for-ounce, pose the greatest risks to human health cannot be monitored continuously because the technology to do so doesnt exist. The projections for these pollutants come from annual stack tests. The testing period usually lasts for 10 days. But the tests themselves typically consist of three one-hour tests for each pollutant. The exception is the test for dioxins and furans (the most toxic of the plants pollutants), which typically consists of three "runs" of 250 minutes in length.
Thus, sampling for the most hazardous substances released into the air at the incinerator covers only 12.5 hours out of the more than 8,000 hours of annual operations.
The release amounts listed at right are well within the plants permit requirements, but if the most toxic pollutants arent being checked 99.8 percent of the time, are they being accurately measured?
One clear limitation of incinerator stack tests - one of particular concern because of the controversies over special wastes - is that they cant be done by surprise. This gives plant operators the opportunity to control whats burned, and how it gets burned, during the testing periods.
Neil Carman, a chemist and former field investigator for the Texas Air Control Board, says the problem is that even when conducted rigorously, stack tests only provide a snapshot of how a given facility performs - a glimpse, he believes, that is less than what communities deserve when the emissions are known to include complex and potent toxic pollutants like dioxins.
"I tell regulators its like the cop being on the freeway with the radar gun for one day out of 365 days a year," Carman says.
Speaking in defense of the stack tests, Walt Stevenson of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains that operators can also monitor temperature and pressure parameters within the plant. They can then use this "parametric" information, he says, to determine whether the plant is operating under conditions consistent with those imposed during the annual stack testing period. Significant variations must be reported to regulators, he says, and enforcement actions can be taken if they go uncorrected.
For many pollutants, what technicians "see" in the tests depends on what is being burned at the time, says Kelle Vigeland, the environmental engineer whos participated in several stack tests for the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority (SCAPCA).
"The difficulty in interpreting test results from municipal solid waste facilities," Vigeland observes, "is the inhomogeneity of the waste stream. During any one test run, something might be fed into the unit which can drastically affect the emissions measured. If you wait an hour and retest, you will get a very different result."
For dioxins, experts agree that the formation of these substances inside the incinerator depends not only on what is being burned but how well it is being burned. The better the fire, the less likely it is that dioxins will be created.
As part of this review of the Spokane plant for the Northwest Environmental Education Foundation, we did a cursory exam of CEM records covering four periods of approximately nine days each in 1996 and 1997. We paid particular attention to carbon monoxide levels. Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indicator of combustion efficiency, which, in turn, is an indicator for whether conditions are favorable for dioxin formation. Generally, the higher the CO levels in garbage incinerators, the more favorable the conditions for dioxin formation.
In reviewing records of the plants stack tests (1991 through 1996), it is apparent that CO levels are well under control during the test periods, usually below 30 parts per million (ppm) and seldom above 40 ppm. Yet in the 37 days of CEM data we reviewed, hourly averages above 50 ppm were common (30 out of 37 days). For 17 hours, the average CO levels exceeded 100 ppm, with one reaching above 350 ppm. During the stack test period in June, 1996, there were two hours when CO levels did exceed 100 ppm - but both these readings were recorded hours after dioxin tests had been completed.
While these fluctuations in CO levels may not translate directly into higher dioxin releases, they at least raise a question as to whether the stack tests capture the day-to-day realities of how the Spokane plant actually operates when it is not being tested. Under Washington state law there is a provision by which either the Department of Ecology or SCAPCA are authorized to conduct special studies to better understand the release of dioxins from the incinerator. Such studies have not been done.
Nitrogen oxide 361 tons per year
Sulfur dioxide 55 tons per year
Carbon monoxide 46 tons per year
Particulates 22 tons per year
Hydrogen chloride 14.75 tons per year
Lead 199 pounds per year
Mercury 170 pounds per year
Cadmium 3.4 pounds per year
Arsenic .14 pounds per year
Dioxins/Furans 2.77 grams per year
Polychlorinated Biphenyls .66 grams per year
The Columbus Syndrome - The harrowing story of a failed incinerator
Teresa Mills and her neighbors learned about the Columbus, Ohio, waste-to-energy facility the hard way. Only a mile away from Park Ridge, the suburban neighborhood where Mills and her family live, the City of Columbus burned more than a thousand tons of garbage per day from 1983 through 1994.
Before Teresa Mills knew anything about the hazards of garbage incineration, she and her neighbors began to believe something was wrong. Among the 14 families on Mills street there seemed to be an unusual number of breast and bone cancers, hysterectomies, respiratory infections and other maladies. There were also, they thought, an unusual number of sick dogs - particularly dogs with tumors.
Mills and her neighbors began meeting regularly to try to understand what was happening. Baffled, they agreed to stop using chemical lawn service in the neighborhood. But that didnt solve their problems.
The Park Ridge residents didnt suspect the nearby Columbus waste-to-energy plant as a potential threat to their health until one day in March, 1993, when Mills and a neighbor called the plant to ask about a yellow plume emanating from its towering smokestack. The first person who answered hung up on them. On the second call, Mills found herself talking to a whistleblower - a confidential informant inside the plant who said something about "dioxin" and told her to ask for the results of a stack test. Mills remembers looking at her friend and asking, "Whats dioxin?"
The stack test results were on file with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the state regulatory agency responsible for ensuring the plants compliance with Ohio laws and the federal Clean Air Act. When the Park Ridge residents asked for a copy of the report, the agency at first refused, explaining there hadnt been time to analyze it. Only with the help of a sympathetic state representative did Mills secure a copy.
Report in hand, she went to consult with Rick Sahli, an environmental law expert at the Ohio Environmental Council. In 1993, Sahli was embroiled in a dispute with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over proposed guidelines for dioxin emissions at hazardous waste incinerators. The EPA proposed a standard of 30 nanograms (30 billionths of a gram) per cubic meter of air coming out the stack. But based on growing evidence of dioxins potential for harm at low doses, Sahli and the Ohio Environmental Council opposed this standard as too lax.
Of five dioxin measurements taken from the Columbus stack, the average concentration was more than 13,000 nanograms per cubic meter - 430 times higher than the amount the EPA was proposing for the burning of hazardous waste.
"Total horror," Sahli says when asked about his reaction to the Columbus stack test results. "I thought we might have the number one health crisis in the country."
Public disclosure of the stack test results, Mills discovered, was not enough to change things in Columbus. Even though the plant had been running for more than a decade, the city still owed $175 million to pay off its construction and interest debts. It simply could not afford to close the plant, nor could it afford the $65 million to overhaul the plants pollution control system. Mills and Sahli found themselves not just fighting city hall but all the local, state and federal health officials whod known about the dioxin problem and failed to take action.
"They essentially wanted us to bring them a dead body riddled with dioxin before they would do anything," Sahli says.
To protect themselves from growing criticism, both the municipal authority operating the plant and the Columbus Health Department hired consulting scientists to help them assuage the public outrage.
"Incredibly," observes Dr. Paul Connett, a St. Lawrence University chemistry professor and incinerator critic, "Ohios public health agencies response amounted to an expensive public relations campaign to downplay the dangers of dioxin."
Results of the Columbus stack test eventually made their way to William Sanjour, a policy analyst in the Office of Solid Waste at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Sanjour sent the report to others in the EPA whom he knew were particularly knowledgeable about incineration and dioxin.
"They were shocked out of their minds," Sanjour recalls.
Based on the stack test, he informed EPA Administrator Carol Browner in a January 12, 1994, memo that the Columbus plant was releasing about two kilograms of dioxin per year - 10 times more dioxin than the goal EPA had recently set for all 160 U.S. garbage incinerators combined.
"As a consequence of these dioxin emissions," he warned, "dozens of people in the Columbus area die of cancer every year this incinerator is in operation. In fact, the area just down the prevailing wind from the incinerator has the highest cancer rate in Franklin County. Cancer is not the only problem. Many more people are sickened or otherwise affected by the many other effects of dioxin. Pregnant women are particularly susceptible."
Sanjour charged that both Ohio and the U.S. EPA violated federal law "for failing to protect the citizens of Columbus from this facility."
When Sanjours memo was made public in Columbus, it outraged local and state officials who, to this day, deny any link between the plants emissions and public health effects. Sanjour still expresses his contempt for the Ohio EPA and the City of Columbus Health Department which, he says bluntly, betrayed the people of Columbus.
One effect of the memo, however, was that it embarrassed the EPA into taking enforcement action against the Columbus plant in September, 1994. Finding that the facility "may present an imminent and substantial endangerment" to public health, the EPA ordered Columbus to stop running the facility until it completed a major overhaul of its pollution control system. On November 1, 1994, faced with having to spend at least $65 million for the upgrades, the governing board for the plant voted unanimously to stop the burning of garbage in Columbus.
Because of the more advanced pollution control equipment installed in Spokanes waste-to-energy plant, a dioxin problem on the scale of that which plagued Columbus seems unlikely. A lawsuit seeking damages for injuries caused by exposures to dioxin and other emissions has been filed against Columbus and its solid waste authority in federal court by neighbors of the plant.
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