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Op-ed: Stericycle study won't help make decision to shut it down

Published November 12, 2013 5:10 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

At the September "Erin Brockovich/Stericycle" townhall meeting, a woman told me about seven women on her street who had cancer, some of whom had already died. Young couples came up to me in tears with stories of infertility, children with leukemia, birth defects, autism and infants needing bone marrow transplants for aplastic anemia.

After the spirited "Shut It Down" rally in front of the incinerator, I had the privilege of some private time with Ms. Brockovich. I recited some of those heartbreaking stories. She's heard them all, perhaps a thousand times over, from communities through out the country. Nonetheless, they seemed to trigger in her a new sense of outrage.

All of this is evidence, albeit anecdotal, of serious harm and environmental injustice in our community. As a gesture of doing something meaningful, Gov. Gary Herbert has ordered a Stericycle health study. After contacting people in the state and Davis County health departments involved in the study, qualified and earnest professionals to be sure, it became apparent that this study is far too limited to be any real help in decision making.

A study with a control population, unexposed to Stericycle, is impossible to create because all humans harbor these toxins in their bodies, and most of the bad actors in Stericycle's emissions are also part of other industrial emissions in the area.

A comprehensive health study specific to this incinerator would take literally decades, would have to examine the health of individuals yet unborn to future parents who had lived near Stericycle, would have to track many different types of diseases, would be very expensive, and should be done by an independent body, not a state agency.

Stericycle operates because of the permitting grace of the Division of Air Quality, an arm of the governor's office. Having another arm of the governor's office, the Department of Health, investigate the consequences of DAQ's handiwork opens the door for conflict of interest.

In the meantime, the governor is allowing Stericycle to operate until it is proven unsafe beyond any doubt. A wealth of existing research and the anecdotal evidence from residents in the area are more than enough to demand a safer, conservative, precautionary approach, i.e. the facility should not be in operation until it can be proven beyond reasonable doubt to be safe.

This precautionary approach is the platform for diagnostic investigation in medicine, as well as the way most people conduct their daily lives.

No rational person demands proof that they are about to be involved in a life threatening accident before they buckle their seat belt. Statistically, use of seat belts saves lives even though the chance of that accident per individual is small. And we didn't wait for a study specific to Utah before we made wearing your seat belt a Utah law.

Living near an incinerator, or having your body contaminated with incinerator toxins originating miles away, statistically increases your chance of many types of serious diseases.

We don't need to wait for a study specific to Utah to confirm that. Stericycle's permit authorizes it to release 9.51 tons of the most toxic substances known to man every year — 200 tons of sheer poison over 20 years.

That is as much as a full-sized oil refinery. No one would dare suggest that an oil refinery's emissions are not a health hazard. But because Stericycle's emissions are released from a much shorter stack, the impact on local health is greater.

Suppose the governor's limited study concludes Stericycle poses no health risk. Do we discard the thousands of studies that draw the opposite conclusion about all the other incinerators in the world, the toxicity of their emissions, and the advice of multiple health groups that have declared incinerators hazardous?

Any study limited to Stericycle's neighbors will not address the far reach of their emissions. Dioxins in the breast milk of Inuit Native Americans in Northern Canada have been traced to incinerators in the U.S.

While ordering new Utah science, Herbert is ignoring a much larger body of existing science. The most powerful message of new air pollution and environmental research is this: Few things have more public health impact than the air a pregnant mother breathes.

Intrauterine exposure to contaminants can have irreversible disease consequences affecting multiple generations. While the governor calls yet another press conference, forms yet another air pollution committee, orders yet another study, the clock is ticking on tens of thousands of children making their one time pass through critical stages of embryonic development, forever losing their chance at a genetic and epigenetic profile that will allow them optimal health.

If the state's default priority is to protect business, the burning will continue until the evidence is tragically irrefutable. If the priority is to protect lives, the burning would have stopped months ago.

Brian Moench is a Salt Lake physician and founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.