Medical Waste, Body Part Incineration Company Is Polluting Vulnerable Haw River Communities

Source: NC Policy Watch

A multinational company that incinerates medical, hospital and infectious waste at a facility in Haw River has again been fined by the State of North Carolina for violating the Clean Air Act, NC Policy Watch reported.

Stericycle has been releasing pollutants into vulnerable communities in Alamance County since at least 2013, according to EPA reports and NC Policy Watch.

The facility has been cited with at least 24 air quality violations in the last 10 years and has incurred nearly $40,000 in penalties in that time. NC Policy Watch reported that since July 2019, the EPA has cited Stericycle’s Haw River facility with “high priority violations” every single quarter.

Those violations are related to the release of particulate matter emissions (which can aggravate or cause asthma, COPD and heart conditions), pollutants from incinerated medical waste including residue from chemotherapy procedures and even human body parts.

Other medical waste being burned at the facility includes PPE such as masks and gloves, as well as IV tubing and other plastic items. Burning plastic releases a number of contaminants, including neurotoxins like lead and carcinogens like dioxin.

According to NC Policy Watch, the facility, located near Interstate 40, is surrounded by mostly non-white and/or low-income neighborhoods. Whether or not the pollutants drift into the neighborhoods all depends on which way the wind is blowing on any given day.

Illinois-based Stericycle is the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator company and nine of its facilities in the country have current violations related to both air quality and waste disposal, NC Policy Watch reported. Of those nine, three have “significant violations” – including the Haw River facility, according to the EPA.

As a Title V facility – a distinction assigned to the largest air pollution sources – Stericycle’s Haw River location uses “emissions stacks” that “contain scrubbers to reduce, although not eliminate, the amount of contaminants that enter the air,” NC Policy Watch wrote. In addition to the emissions stacks, the facility also includes a bypass system that doesn’t include those pollution controls and is meant to only be used in emergencies.

Division of Air Quality records obtained by NC Policy Watch shows that “consistent mechanical and electronic breakdowns” have resulted in Stericycle needing to use the bypass system.

The bypass system had been opened for three to 15 minutes most times in the past, but on April 28, “pollution flowed through the bypass for 62 minutes,” according to NC Policy Watch. Even worse, there were two instances – Feb. 26, 2017, and April 15, 2018 – where state records show that the bypass system allowed pollution to be spewed into the air for eight hours each day.

Information obtained by NC Policy Watch showed that “On the days when the pollutants entered the air for the longest time, data from the Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport show the wind was blowing toward the vulnerable neighborhoods.”

State records show that the Haw River Stericycle facility receives hospital, medical and infectious waste from both in-state and out-of-state. The latest publicly available data, from 2019 to 2020, showed that the company processed 12.6 million pounds of waste from North Carolina and another 10.25 million pounds of waste from out-of-state.

NC Policy Watch reported that there are multiple other ways to dispose of medical waste. In fact, last year’s annual report showed that Stericycle uses alternatives such as steam sterilization and microwave technology at 50 of its North American facilities and at 32 international sites. Haw River is not one of those sites 50 North American sites.

Click here to read NC Policy Watch’s full report

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