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Hazardous incinerators?

Each year, 184 incinerators in the United States destroy millions of tons of hazardous materials. Many communities have expressed concerns about the health risks those facilities might pose. Now, epidemiologic studies add weight to those concerns by linking respiratory and neurologic problems to working at or living near such plants. Scientists presented the findings in Atlanta this month at the International Congress on the Health Effects of Hazardous Waste.

Charles E. Feigley and his co-workers at the University of South Carolina in Columbia surveyed a random sample of 894 residents - 508 living downwind of a commercial hazardous-waste incinerator and 386 living upwind in a demographically similar community. Downwinders reported a 50 to 100 percent greater prevalence of coughing, phlegm, wheezing, sore thoart, and eye irritation than upwinders. Even after the researchers accounted for age and for exposure to cigarette smoke, mold, and pets, downwinders were 20 to 90 percent more likely than upwinders to have been diagnosed with emphysema, pneumonia, sinus trouble, asthma, or allergies.

Using the same questionnaire, Dietrich Rothenbacher and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill polled some 400 households in two communities near a hazardous-waste incinerator -- one upwind, the other downwind. Here, too, downwinders reported more diagnosed emphysema, sinus trouble, and sleep-rousing or morning coughs.

Michael Straight and his co-workers at the Agency for Toxic Subtances and Disease Registry in Atlanta compared 713 people living within 1.5 miles of hazardous-waste incinerator to 588 people about 8 miles from the plant. The closer community reported almost nine times more coughing and wheezing, 2.4 times as much neurologic disease (such as seizures and tremors), and 40 percent more neurologic symptoms (including tingling, blackouts, and incoordination).

Melody M. Kawamoto of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati followed up documented reports of headaches, hot flashes, irritability, memory problems, tremors, and erratic blood pressure changes in workers from a then-closed hazardous-waste incinerator. All 14 symptomatic former employees ultimately examined suffered headaches, dizziness, and memory problems.

Researchers led by Woodhall Stopford of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., examined 29 men who complained of chronic nausea, headache, dizziness, and feelings of intoxication. Between 23 and 50 years of age, all the men had worked at hazardous-waste incinerators. Eight of the 15 men with joint pain had arthritis of unknown cause; more than half the men had middle-ear disease causing vertigo or gait problems; roughly half had memory problems; and 22 exhibited abnormal sweating or wide fluctuations in pulse and blood pressure. Moreover, sleep disorders, severe depression, and recurring suicidal thoughts plagued 27 of the 29 men. "And all [27] had difficulty controlling impulses - rage reactions -- either verbally or physically," Stopford says. Indeed, he notes, 16 described "homicidal" thoughts.

None of these studies proves that incinerators harm health. But they do raise strong suspicions that the apparent links are real, Feigley says. He and many other researchers will now begin correlating individuals' symptoms with specific exposures to pollutant plumes or particular chemicals.

"It has been 12 years since federal rules governing the safety of hazardous-waste incinerators have been reviewed or strengthened," says EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner. On May 18, she pledged not only to begin tightening emission controls on new and existing incinerators, but also to convene a task force to evaluate the role of incineration in disposing of the nation's hazardous wastes.
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Title Annotation:waste treatment facilities linked to health problems
Publication:Science News
Date:May 22, 1993
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