“Burning garbage: Bad for children”

Nice piece by Lara Norkus-Crampton on the harm done by burning garbage:

Burning garbage: Bad for children


A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health links autism to air pollution. Their conclusion: Women in the U.S. exposed to high levels of air pollution while pregnant were up to twice as likely to have a child with autism as women who lived in areas with low pollution.


Specifically: The results showed that women who lived in the 20% of locations with the highest levels of diesel particulates or mercury in the air were twice as likely to have a child with autism as those who lived in the 20% of areas with the lowest levels.

Air pollution has been linked to health problems from asthma and heart disease to neurological disorders and cancer. Mercury is one well-known neurotoxin that comes from industrial combustion sources like incinerators and coal plants. The idea that higher exposures could lead to neurological disorders shouldn’t be surprising. We also know that some of the tiniest nanoparticles coming from industrial/combustion sources of air pollution can be small enough to cross the air sac membranes in the lungs. Once entering the bloodstream, they can cross the blood brain barrier and even the placenta into a developing fetus. The smaller the particulates, the more surface area they have to be coated with heavy metals and toxins like dioxins. Compare it to the amount of pesticides you get from eating a cup of grapes that have been sprayed versus one apple.

From your bloodstream these substances also build up in your body fat. This is called bioaccumulation. At least one of these dangerous toxins, dioxins, gets passed from mother to baby while breast feeding. It is a closed system with no escape unless the sources of these toxic emissions are eliminated.

This means that where you live matters. What your community is downwind from matters. What is being located near your home, park, garden or school matters. Most importantly: What is being spewed from known sources of air pollution on the surrounding communities should matter to officials at all levels of government charged with protecting the public.

As a registered nurse, I became very interested in local sources of air pollution while serving as a planning commissioner with the City of Minneapolis. In that capacity my responsibility was to make sure that any land use proposals coming before the city met the requirements of the permits, and met the stated environmental goals in the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan for Sustainable Growth.

A proposal came before us in 2009 requesting a permit to burn 200 tons (or 400,000 pounds) more refuse at the downtown garbage burner (or the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, HERC) per day.

I knew very little about HERC, but I do remember being a little surprised that these smoke stacks were located in the middle of the most highly populated area in the state. The proposers, Hennepin County and Covanta, said their current permit allowed them to burn 1000 tons (or 2 million pounds) of garbage per day. This sounded like a lot to me. What was coming out of those stacks now? Other commissioners had similar questions.

No data was presented by Covanta or Hennepin County to answer our questions at this hearing. We were told that the federal standards were being met and the Planning Department recommended approval of the permit. End of story.

Still, the findings for the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) they were asking for have certain conditions that are required to be met by state statute. This proposal needed a CUP because it was an exception to the current zoning that could only be permitted under certain conditions. Two of the required findings that immediately came to mind were:

(1) The establishment, maintenance or operation of the conditional use will not be detrimental to or endanger the public health, safety, comfort or general welfare; and

(2) The conditional use will not be injurious to the use and enjoyment of other property in the vicinity and will not impede the normal and orderly development and improvement of surrounding property for uses permitted in the district.

We asked them to come back to another hearing with more data regarding what was coming out of the stacks so we could determine if the additional emissions could have a negative impact on the public health or the property rights of the neighbors.

In the meantime, as part of my own due diligence, I did a simple data search. I recalled that mercury was a common emission from industrial smokestacks. In searching Mercury and Incinerators, I immediately found the Massachusetts Medical Society resolution calling for a moratorium on new garbage incinerators because they determined that Zero Mercury was safe.

Resolution 410, I-00 (D)

Title: Massachusetts Medical Society Supports a Zero Mercury Emission Strategy, Including Improved Waste Prevention, Continuation of the Moratorium on New Waste Incinerators, and Improved Emission Controls for Power Plants
Among the findings were the following:

Whereas, Mercury is a recognized hazardous pollutant that is extremely persistent in the environment once introduced, becoming more concentrated at higher levels of the food chain; and

Whereas, Studies have shown that very low doses of mercury result in impaired childhood neurobehavioral function, including problems with attention, verbal learning, vocabulary, and neuromotor function; and

Whereas, Incineration of municipal waste and coal combustion are the first- and second-largest sources of mercury released in Massachusetts; and

Whereas, Proliferation of solid waste is a public health issue that threatens not only the state of our natural resources, but also threatens the quality of water, air, and food; and

Whereas, According to the National Academy of Sciences, as much as 80 percent of the waste stream is preventable or recyclable; and

Whereas, The American Public Health Association has issued a policy statement (No. 8911) raising concerns about the hazardous nature of incinerator ash due to its high levels of heavy metals and dioxins … Etc.

It seemed clear that if the mercury alone was this toxic, and there were other known toxins coming from incinerating the wide variety of materials in the waste stream, then, more emissions meant spewing more of these toxins. It seemed clear that this proposal couldn’t meet the first finding: Will not be a detriment to or endanger the public health.

We asked if there was data to prove otherwise. We were given a plume study from a two-year-old Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Twins “Open Air” Stadium across the street from the Burner(!). This study appeared to be done to demonstrate that HERC wouldn’t impact the air quality of the stadium because the emissions would arch over the stadium to points beyond on Nicollet Island, and other parts of Northeast and Southeast Minneapolis. This was the good news for stadium goers but not so good for the residents living downwind! Unfortunately, the map was very small and there was no way to see where else the models predicted the emissions to land throughout Minneapolis.

The only other EIS done back in 1986 before the Burner was in operation predicted that emissions would land in parts of North and South Minneapolis using scientific models. There apparently was never any monitoring equipment installed or required to actually measure what has been landing where in the city since the Burner was fired up. It is difficult to know if this 25+-year-old modeling was correct. Even today the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) continues to rely on air modeling over actual air monitors, because very few air monitors have been installed. Why?

Since they did not answer the Planning Commission’s concerns and could not prove that the burning increase could meet the findings, we denied the Conditional Use Permit to burn 400,000 pounds more garbage per day in 2009.
Hennepin County and Covanta appealed our decision to the City Council, and after hearing from citizens in the form of an official petition the MPCA required an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) to review its proposal.

Covanta’s operating permit was up for renewal (I was told it expired in 2002) so the MPCA decided to review both at the same time.

There have been numerous delays in the past four years since the Appeal of our Denial was filed and NO public hearing before the City Council. The MPCA sent Covanta�s and Hennepin County�s data back several times for being incomplete. The review process dragged out long enough for the federal regulations to become stricter, as more was officially recognized about the health and environmental impacts of air pollution. This meant some modeling had to be redone to reflect the new standards. Throughout this lengthy process, citizens have been trying repeatedly to get updated information regarding the current HERC emissions.

The latest data recently presented by the MPCA, from 2010, showed that the total mercury from HERC was 11.4 pounds for that year. The CDC has a four-page instruction manual on cleaning up a mercury spill from a single thermometer�a tiny fraction of this amount! If it is considered this serious at approximately one gram, and zero is what is considered safe by physicians, then imagine how safe 11.4 pounds is (at 454 grams per pound), dispersed all over the downwind communities?

As Justin Eibenholzl, former environmental coordinator for Southeast Como Improvement Association, has posted, “The current mercury limit is 175 lbs. for HERC!” When he asked the MPCA if there was any source of mercury emissions even close to this amount in the metro area, he was told that a foundry came close to this “limit.”  The proposed mercury limit in the latest application for HERC is 65 lbs. This seems like a significant reduction in allowable emissions from 175, but is set much higher than the 2010 HERC mercury emissions of 11.4 lbs., for example. (The scrubbers for mercury specifically have proven to be effective at lowering the amount in the emissions. This is good. Yet, in real terms, this means that more mercury will be trapped and sent with the toxic ash to a toxic landfill. Nothing disappears.)

This leaves the Burner with plenty of wiggle room and, at 65 lbs., would keep HERC one of the top three emissions sources of mercury in the region, according to the MPCA. It seems fair to ask: Who benefits from this wiggle room? Who pays? And this is just one of the many “regulated” toxic substances coming from HERC. Apparently what is “acceptable” to the MPCA is different than what is considered safe by qualified medical professionals.

Since the Burner increase permit was first denied, more studies have come out pointing to the dangers of exposing children to air pollution. For instance, a 2011 study showed that: “Exposing children to environmental pollutants during important times of physiological development can lead to long-lasting health problems, dysfunction and disease … We found that schools located in areas with the highest air pollution levels had the lowest attendance rates-a potential indicator of poor health-and the highest proportions of students who failed to meet state educational testing standards.”


This fits with the general scientific findings that air pollution negatively impacts health–but disproportionately impacts children with their developing lungs and brains, and their immature organs for clearing toxins out of their bodies. And somehow all of this public health data is beside the point or “a sideshow,” as County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has stated several times, in the unrelenting campaign by Covanta, Hennepin County, and even the MPCA itself, in promoting incineration as responsible waste management.

Why are we even talking about increasing the incineration rate of recyclables and compostables when the rest of the civilized world is talking about Zero Waste? Why have our recycling rates been so low over the past 25 years while well over half of what is being incinerated at HERC is recyclable and compostable? And if the toxic ash left at the end of this incineration process must be shipped to a toxic landfill, then how can this be the “answer” to the “problem” of landfills anyway? All good questions that deserve discussion next time.

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