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(Paul Fraughton | Tribune file photo) In this photo from June, Selin Hoboy, left, and James Nold, representatives of Stericycle, explain the incineration process the company employs at its North Salt Lake facility to a group of citizens concerned over the possible health effects from the incinerator's emissions.
Amid Stericycle outcry, University of Utah hospitals rethink waste
Medical waste » Air-quality concerns have the medics weighing whether to abandon N. Salt Lake incinerator.
First Published Oct 16 2013 09:05 am • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:36 pm

Utah hospitals send tons of medical waste to Stericycle each year for incineration.

But as community activists fight to shut down the North Salt Lake incinerator for alleged emissions violations, at least one hospital group, University of Utah Health Sciences, is rethinking the practice.

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"Originally, nationwide they were a leader in the industry," said U. hospital spokeswoman Kathy Wilets. "However, in light of concerns raised from the community about air-quality issues related to the company, we are in the process of evaluating our contract."

American hospitals produce 33.8 pounds of waste per day per hospital bed, according to Practice Greenhealth, a support network that helps health centers reduce their carbon footprints.

There are 5,735 staffed hospital beds in Utah, according to the Utah Hospital Association — translating to 97 tons of waste per day.

Most of it is conventional garbage — paper, cardboard, food waste — that is either recycled or dumped in landfills. But hospitals also churn out a complicated mix of infectious medical waste that has to be separated and treated, including blood-soaked bandages, used syringes, expired prescription drugs and hazardous chemicals.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 90 percent of this potentially infectious material is sent to incinerators, which emit greenhouse gasses, dioxins and other toxic substances.

But hospitals, recognizing the links between environmental harms and disease, are eyeing newer, greener waste-management technologies.

One option being weighed by the U.: on-site machines to sterilize waste and render it nonhazardous for disposal in lined landfills.

"[Stericycle] is not the only game in town. There are lots of different systems," said Michele Johnson, director of Environmental Health and Safety at the U.

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Each strategy, though, comes with benefits and risks, including cost, she said. "Cost always comes into play. As a state institution, we have to be sensible and wise with taxpayer dollars."

But environmental groups contend incineration isn’t the cheapest alternative. It’s outdated, they say, and should be abandoned by hospitals heeding the pledge to do no harm.

"There are no laws in the U.S. that require incineration of medical waste. In fact, a few countries have banned it," said Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "It’s ironic that through the front door hospitals promote health and lifesaving procedures but through the back door they’re actually spreading disease and poor health through the toxicity of the waste they deliver."

Utah hospitals treat and bury most of their waste, but all of them set fire to some of it. And all but one major health chain — MountainStar — contracts with Stericycle.

MountainStar, owner of St. Mark’s Hospital, has "not done business with Stericycle," said company spokeswoman Audrey Glasby. Its waste is treated and sent to a Utah landfill run by Waste Management, with a small portion burned at a facility in Maryland.

Roughly 15 percent of the disposal needs of IASIS Healthcare’s four Utah hospitals are met by the Stericycle plant, and the rest of the waste is sent to other facilities, said Laura Walsh, director of marketing for the Western region.

Intermountain Healthcare, Utah’s largest hospital chain, is always exploring new technologies but has no plans to end its relationship with Stericycle, said its spokesman Daron Cowley, noting Intermountain accounts for 1.6 percent of what Stericycle burns.

Moench said residents of the Foxboro neighborhood surrounding Stericycle first approached Intermountain four years ago with their emissions concerns.

State regulators allege smoke coming from Stericycle’s stack has exceeded limits for dioxin, furan and nitrous oxides.

The facility also failed to properly report these events and rigged a stack test, regulators say.

Stericycle has denied and taken legal steps to fight those claims.

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