4. Poisoning Ourselves with TOXIC Incinerators

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Source: GOVERNMENT ACCOUNT­ABILITY PROJECT, Date: September 1994, Title: “Poisoning Ourselves: The Impact of Incineration on Food and Human Health, An Executive Summary,” Author: Mick G. Harrison, Esq.

SYNOPSIS: By the latter part of the 1980s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under­stood two very important facts that should have fundamentally altered the nation’s waste disposal policy.

First, government officials knew that incineration produced dioxin as a byproduct. Dioxin is one of the most potent, toxic, and carcino­genic chemicals known to science. Second, EPA scientists knew that dioxin accumulates through the food chain much like the banned pesticide DDT accumulates in the environment. Dioxin is a persistent substance that easily stores and remains in the tissues of plants and animals. EPA officials also admit that the EPA has no standards to address the immense risks posed by food chain contamination from incinerators emitting dioxin.

Despite this information, incin­eration has rapidly proliferated throughout the country as the “profitable answer” for disposal of the nation’s stockpile of toxic waste and garbage. In fact, incineration does not destroy the waste, it trans­forms it. Dioxin, lead, mercury, PCBs and other air emissions from incinerator smokestacks cannot be adequately contained even with the most advanced equipment. These poisons are widely dispersed, and like acid rain, result in uncontrolled pollution of the surrounding water, soil, and farmland.

The dangers of these bio-cumula­tive chemicals multiply dramatically as they are absorbed up through the food chain, from soil and water to plant and animal life to humans. In the case of dioxin, it takes seven years for your body to eliminate half of the dioxin in your system. Unfortunately, rather than acting on the information it has, EPA has pur­posefully avoided even documenting the cumulative effects of hazardous and solid waste incineration. Flaws in the EPA-industry perspective, cited by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) which has been investigating the problem, include: 1) failure to acknowledge that our current national cancer rate is largely the result of environmental exposures to industry pollutants, and 2) the use of risk assessment methods, that when corrected for error and non-conservative assump­tions, warrants far higher projections of risk than those reported by EPA and industry.

The most recent EPA waste combustion strategy fails to over­come the problems since: 1) it is not being applied to incinerators used in Superfund cleanups (more than 1,000 communities have a waste cleanup problem that may warrant Superfund action); 2) it is not being applied to the dioxin waste incinerator in Jacksonville, Arkansas, despite gross evidence of failure to meet standards and rul­ings in federal court; 3) it is not being used to require timely and strict compliance with current stan­dards (the infamous WTI inciner­ator in East Liverpool, Ohio, and the LWD incinerator in Calvert City, Kentucky, are prime examples of non-compliance problems); and 4) it is only sporadically applied at commercial hazardous waste incin­erators.

The problem is well known to the regulators, yet no preventative action is being taken in communi­ties where unnecessary hazardous waste incinerators saturate the air and food supply with dioxin, lead, mercury, cadmium, and other persistent toxins.

GAP charges: “Our national policy of promoting incineration and other combustion methods of waste disposal is poisoning us.”

SSU Censored Researcher: Lisa Golding

COMMENTS: The author of this report, Mick Harrison, was director of the EPA Watch Program of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) when the study was con­ducted; he is now director of GreenLaw, an environmental protec­tion organization. Harrison said the issue received minimal media cov­erage per se in 1994. “There was no national television coverage and no national newsweekly coverage of the subject,” he noted. “There was some coverage on the periphery, including limited coverage by The New York Times, of two specific incinerator cases in which the author and GAP are involved: the WTI hazardous waste incinerator controversy in East Liverpool, Ohio, and the Vertac Superfund site EPA incinerator in Jacksonville, Arkansas.”

The author suggests that the public would benefit directly from greater exposure of the issue because “increased public aware­ness that incinerators. and other pollution sources are causing mass contamination of food could lead directly to legislative and agency actions to dramatically reduce the number of cancer deaths and other environmental illnesses in the U.S. (and abroad), including breast cancer, and appropriate allocation of resources.

“Those who benefit from the lack of media coverage given the nominated subject are primarily the large corporations, and those who own and control them, involved in waste incineration and those that emit environmentally persistent chemical poisons into the air (or water and soil) such as power plants, cement plants, asphalt plants, chemical plants, steel plants, paint and solvent com­panies and certain manufacturing operations. Indirectly, politicians who receive substantial financial support from such corporations and individuals also benefit from the lack of coverage.”

Harrison said that there had been some recent coverage on new EPA limits on dioxin risk assess­ments, but pointed out that this coverage did not focus on the cen­tral issue, an aspect of censorship that is often overlooked.

“The central issue of the article was the dire risks posed to human health and the environment by the cumulative impacts of atmospheric transport and deposition of chem­ical poisons such as dioxin, mercury and PCBs emitted from multiple waste incinerators and other air pol­lution sources over time. This cumulative impact results in conta­mination of food sources and tens of thousands, if not millions, of cases of (preventable) cancers and other serious illnesses. Instead, the limited coverage that occurred focused on controversies over individual waste facilities and on EPA actions in response to public pressure. This had the effect of distracting public attention from the issue of cumula­tive impacts and gave the impres­sion that the government was responding appropriately.

“The key point was ignored­ that the bulk of our current cata­strophic number of cancer cases (and several other serious non­-cancer illnesses) are preventable if we simply acknowledge the com­bined national impact of multiple air pollution sources, and stop being distracted by the traditional EPA and industry approach which focuses public attention erro­neously only on individual facilities and the fraction of emitted chem­ical poisons from a single facility deposited in close proximity in the local community. This EPA/ industry now-you-see-it now-you-­don’t approach to environmental assessment and analysis, a scientific slight of hand at best, leaves unac­counted for all the chemical poi­sons that are traded via the atmosphere from one community to another, and assumes these poi­sons fall harmlessly between food producing areas.”

Harrison acknowledged that the EPA recently has been moving to regulate previously unregulated dioxin sources such as medical waste incinerators and to add dioxin limits for hazardous waste incinera­tors. “However,” he said, “there has yet to be a public acknowledgment of the importance of food chain contamination from air pollution sources and the potential addressing such sources aggressively has for dramatically lowering current rates of cancer and other illnesses.”

Harrison concluded that the “communication gap has largely resulted from the failure of the media to take this particular bull by the horns.”

On December 16, 1994, at an EPA hearing to collect public com­ment, Arnold Den, senior EPA advisor in San Francisco, confirmed Harrison’s concerns, saying, “90 percent of dioxin exposure is through the food chain route.”