[Date Prev][Date Next][Date Index]

E-M:/ Victory for Tough Standards on Incinerators

Enviro-Mich message from tracey@ecocenter.org (Tracey Easthope)

 Dioxin and Mercury Levels Pose Health Risk

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A federal appellate court in Washington, D.C.
ruled today that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency failed to
justify its lax approach to setting emission standards for medical waste

"Medical waste incinerators are among the most substantial emitters of
mercury, dioxins, and other harmful air pollutants," said Howard Fox of
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which handled the suit on behalf of the
two plaintiffs, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council. "It
is crucial that emissions be well-controlled, so that our already
excessive exposure to these persistent toxins is not further increased."

Dioxin is the most potent carcinogen ever evaluated by EPA. Mercury is
known to damage the central nervous systems of unborn babies and
children, resulting in symptoms similar to congenital cerebral palsy.
Even small amounts of these pollutants can cause cancer or similarly
tragic health effects. "These pollutants are so toxic that exposure is
measured in billionths and trillionths of a gram," said Fox.

Dioxin and mercury both bioaccumulate (i.e., accumulate in fatty tissue,
and increase in concentration as they move up the food chain). Thus any
increase in these pollutants is magnified in humans, who occupy the top
of the food chain. EPA has concluded that 1% to 3% of all women of
childbearing age are presently at risk of bearing children with
irreparable birth defects as a result of mercury contamination in the
fish they eat.

In addition to dioxin and mercury, medical waste incinerators emit
several other harmful pollutants such as lead, cadmium, hydrogen
chloride, and particles.

In 1990 Congress revised the Clean Air Act to require EPA to write
regulations limiting medical waste incinerator emissions. Congress
directed that the regulations require, at a minimum, the degree of
emission control achieved by the best performing sources. Specifically,
in the case of existing incinerators, standards were not to fall below
"the average emissions limitation achieved by the best performing 12
percent of units," and in the case of new units, were not to fall below
"the emissions control that is achieved in practice by the best
controlled similar unit."

The emission floors underlying EPA's standards, however, were based on
the performance of the worst units, not the best. As a result, EPA's
standards would allow pollution levels that could be controlled
substantially better through application of available technologies.
Indeed, the rules would allow medical waste incinerators to emit
sufficient dioxin to contaminate the entire U.S. population with more
than sixty times the agency's estimated reference dose for that

The court expressed "serious doubts" about the reasonableness of EPA's
approach, and ruled that "EPA's method looks hopelessly irrational." The
court sent the rule back to the agency for further explanation. In the
meantime, the challenged rule will remain in effect, so as not to
"eliminate any federal control at all" during the period of EPA's

"The court's ruling recognizes a simple point of common sense that EPA
tried to deny: the worst is not the best," said Fox. "We are hopeful
that the agency will now turn seriously to the task of protecting
mothers and children from toxic, persistent emissions of dioxins and

The ruling was issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the
District of Columbia Circuit in Sierra Club and Natural Resources
Defense Council v. USEPA, No. 97-1686.

Tracey Easthope, MPH
Director, Environmental Health Project
Ecology Center of Ann Arbor
117 N. Division
Ann Arbor, MI  48104
P 734-663-2400 x 109
F 734-663-2414

ENVIRO-MICH:  Internet List and Forum for Michigan Environmental
and Conservation Issues and Michigan-based Citizen Action.   Archives at

Postings to:  enviro-mich@great-lakes.net      For info, send email to
majordomo@great-lakes.net  with a one-line message body of  "info enviro-mich"