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Up in smoke: setting fire to the waste problem.

Toxins dispersed into the air, soil, and water as a by-product of incineration make this method of disposal extremely hazardous.

America is being buried in garbage. Government, industry, and environmentalists are struggling with a monumental waste problem, but safe and cost-effective solutions are hard to find. The dilemma is made all the more difficult because it includes dangerous toxic and radioactive waste. Given the serious health effects related to hazardous waste and its disposal, the question of how to deal with toxic materials is of concern to everyone, not just government and industry officials.

For decades, burying the waste seemed like the logical solution. From municipal dumps to massive underground storage tanks for radioactive material from the nation's nuclear weapons facilities, waste has been buried or pumped into the ground on a massive scale. Once out of sight, most people thought it could be put out of mind. That, however, is not the case. The Love Canal disaster brought home to Americans that toxic waste was a serious issue. Leakage from landfills has allowed dangerous chemicals to contaminate the soil and seep into groundwater, endangering municipal water supplies and requiring multi-billion-dollar cleanup efforts.

In recognition of the problems caused by years of reckless waste disposal, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976. Gone are the days of companies disposing of waste in the city dump or their backyard. They now hire waste management firms to handle it.

The rapid growth of lucrative waste management corporations has allowed investment in costly technologies necessary to dispose of such material in accordance with RCRA regulations. A small number of corporations now control the lion's share of the waste management business and thus hold great influence with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As a matter of policy, the EPA now appears to have chosen incineration as the waste disposal option of choice.

Incineration is the controlled burning of waste and has become the most favored option because it provides a cost-effective manner of disposal. Incinerators are expensive, but once on-line can produce lucrative profits for the builders and operators of the facility. They burn the waste and, to the average person, it appears to have disappeared. In addition, resource recovery incinerators produce electricity from the incineration process and provide another financial incentive for waste disposal firms to use such technology.

As with landfills, there is more than meets the eye with the "incineration solution." Incinerators are designed to burn hazardous or municipal solid waste at extremely high temperatures to destroy, or at least reduce, the toxic components. The reality is that burning does not destroy the waste, but merely changes its form.

In addition, the process creates new toxic by-products. Incineration of even relatively benign household garbage creates dangerous toxins. These new toxins and waste products, which never are burned completely - despite even the most effective pollution control devices - escape up the smokestacks in the form of air emissions and fly ash, settling on land and surface water or remain in the machine as ash residue, which then must be landfilled.

Health effects of incineration


The toxic by-products of incineration have profound negative impacts on human health and the environment. The following are among the most dangerous:

Dioxins are created by a number of industrial processes such as the manufacture of paper and incineration of household garbage. Dioxin is the active chemical compound found in Agent Orange, one of the defoliants used during the Vietnam War. Military personnel exposed to it have demonstrated a cancer rate two times greater than normal. Dioxins are so toxic that a safe level of exposure can not be determined. Moreover, a 1987 EPA draft study states that exposure to dioxin can "affect the skin, the liver, the nervous system, and the immune system of humans and animals." Additionally troubling, the EPA states that dioxin "is quite potent compared to other known carcinogens. . . ." Dioxin exposure also is linked to impaired immune systems.

Heavy metals include lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury. These commonly are found in hazardous waste, as well as in batteries, inks, paints, and household and industrial refuse. Although these are incinerated along with the rest of the garbage, burning never can destroy the heavy metals. Human exposure to heavy metals can cause birth defects, nervous system damage, and cancer. The controversy about lead paint in public housing - and its deleterious effects, including severe learning disabilities in children - has added fuel to the public outcry concerning heavy metals.

PCBs are a family of chemicals used in coolants and lubricants. The manufacture of PCBs was stopped in the U.S. in 1977 because of evidence that they accumulate in the environment and pose danger to the health of animals and humans. Products containing PCBs are considered to be hazardous waste and often are treated by incineration. However, the technology does not destroy the PCBs - it merely reduces and diffuses them.

Rather than achieving wide destruction of such toxins, incineration disperses them more broadly. This causes serious environmental damage because the contamination becomes more widespread, affecting fish and wildlife, domestic plants, and humans.

Industry and government officials often accuse groups opposing incinerators of the "not in my backyard" syndrome. They remind people that waste must be disposed of; if not in their community, it will be in someone else's. Because many individuals successfully are opposing the siting of incinerators in their neighborhoods, waste management companies often choose "the path of least political resistance." By targeting poor, non-politicized areas, they are more likely to secure the necessary permits to build the incinerators. Common targets are African-American, Hispanic, or Native American communities that are very poor, less educated, and the least empowered to resist corporate pressure.

The United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice undertook a study, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, to evaluate "the relationship between the storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous wastes and the issue of race." It found that "Race proved to be the most significant among variables tested in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities. This represented a consistent national pattern." Moreover, "In communities with one commercial hazardous waste facility, the average minority percentage of the population was twice the average minority percentage of the population in neighborhoods without such facilities (24% versus 12%)."

Community groups must understand that air emissions and toxic ash do not heed city lines. Even if they succeed in having the incinerator sited in a nearby community, rather than their own, they still will suffer the consequences. Incineration does not fully destroy the hazardous components of the waste, but, in fact, distributes it more widely over a greater area. As poisons end up in the food chain, people grapple not only with the location of incinerators, but also with the fallacy that incineration is a viable method to deal with the waste dilemma.

An ounce of prevention

The toxic legacy has come back to haunt the U.S. Clearly, neither landfills nor incinerators are adequate or safe methods to deal with the waste situation. The solution must start with preventive measures.

Earth Day 1990 raised ecological awareness among consumers, who now are hunting for environmentally safe products. Corporate America has invested in advertising campaigns that try to make particular industries and goods at least appear "eco-friendly." Such ads must be taken with a grain of salt, and environmentalists accuse many of these companies of misleading the public. There are, however, constructive ways forward-thinking businesses can help with the toxic waste problem.

Sustainable industry is a business method that seeks to reduce negative impacts on the environment. Its main goal is clean production. Specific steps toward this end include replacing toxic materials with ecologically safe ones, reducing waste in production processes, increasing recycling and energy efficiency, and conserving resources. The basis of this movement is to shift from pollution control to pollution prevention, which means not using toxins in industrial processes in the first place.

Ken Geiser, director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Lowell, promotes implementing the following techniques to make business operations environmentally sustainable:

* Replacing toxic materials with nontoxic - or at least less toxic - substances in the manufacturing process and final products.

* Reworking production processes so that toxic materials are not needed and less energy is expended.

* Reusing production materials and rejected goods to lessen the need for raw materials.

There are many ways toxins in the home can be reduced as well. Creating a non-toxic dwelling helps protect families and the environment. Some of the biggest toxic chemicals used in the home come from cleaning and laundry detergents, pesticides, and building materials. Here are a few examples of ways to "detoxify" a home:

* Scouring powder, which contains dangerous toxins and solvents, can be replaced with a mix of soap and borax or baking soda.

* Cockroach pesticides produced commercially are full of toxins. Boric acid is an effective and non-toxic alternative that costs less than pesticides.

* Synthetic carpets can become hazardous waste when disposed of by incineration. Select those made of natural fibers instead.

* Plastics produce dioxins when burned. Choose products that are made of or are packaged in wood, glass, or paper. When plastics are unavoidable, be sure to separate the plastics from household garbage and recycle them (along with paper, metal, and glass).

(For a free poster, "Stepping Lightly on the Earth: A Minimum Impact Guide to the Home," that lists non-toxic alternatives for the home, write to Greenpeace Action, 1436 U St., N.W., Suite 201-A, Washington, DC 20009.)

The Clinton Administration presents an opportunity to examine America's waste problems from a fresh perspective. Policymakers in Washington are beginning to notice the mounting evidence of danger posed by incineration. The Clinton Administration is expected to be much more progressive on waste disposal issues than were the Bush and Reagan Administrations.

Environmentalists have had differing reactions to the President's choice of Carol Browner to head the EPA. Browner served as then-Senator Al Gores Environmental Staff Coordinator. Most recently, she was Secretary of Florida's Department of Environmental Regulation. Many national environmental groups seem excited about her taking the helm of the EPA.

However, Florida environmental groups report a mixed performance record for Browner. Those opposed have reported that, although she was of "moderate help" in an unsuccessful effort to pass an incinerator moratorium bill in Florida, she watered down the legislation. Browner reduced the bill's five-year ban on incinerators to two. The bill failed in the legislature, although a two-year moratorium was enacted on the incineration of medical waste. in addition, Browner allowed the licensing of two hazardous waste incinerators that have resulted in a doubling of the mercury levels in the endangered Everglades.

Well-known for his outspoken leadership on the environment during his senatorial career, Vice-Pres. Gores book, Earth in the Balance, is a comprehensive treatise on environmental problems. Gore advocates an environmental recovery program that goes hand-in-hand with economic recovery. He seeks to create an economy based on increased energy efficiency and "green technology." These policies will go a long way towards promoting sustainable industries discussed above.

During 1992, Rep. Peter Kostmayer (D.-Pa.) introduced HR 3253, the Pollution Prevention, Community Recycling and Incinerator Control Act. The legislation sought to establish minimum recycling requirements, set goals for achieving toxic use reduction, place a moratorium on the permitting of all new municipal solid waste incinerators through 1999, and set strict conditions for licensing any new hazardous waste incinerators. Instead of concentrating on setting limits for waste, this bill's focus is on reducing waste production. It is a preventive, rather than corrective, measure.

The legislation died in committee and Kostmayer did not win re-election. Its fate is uncertain, though Congressional staffers say they expect the bill to be re-introduced in some form during 1993. People concerned about the waste problem and the "incineration solution" should contact their senators and representatives and urge them to sponsor measures to reduce toxin use and production and to place a moratorium on incineration.

Measures addressing the waste issue must focus on recycling and reducing toxins. Present policies concentrate on disposal, but decades of leaking landfills and toxin-belching incinerators have proven that disposal methods once thought effective actually aggravate the situation. Each individual has a responsibility to expand his or her community's recycling programs, separate trash, and inform legislators about the dangers posed by incineration. Until homes and industries are transformed into non-toxic environments, Americans' health and the environment will remain endangered.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Law, Christy
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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