Panel: City uneducated on risks of waste incinerators

Breanne Gilpatrick

Residents might be uninformed about the potential health risks of a medical-waste incinerator at Evanston Hospital, members of a four-person panel said Tuesday.

Feinberg School of Medicine Prof. Peter Orris, two members of activist group Evanston Health and Environment Network and the city’s director of health and human services addressed about 25 Evanston residents and students. The meeting was held at Norris University Center and sponsored by environmental activism group Students for Environmental and Ecological Development.

Medical-waste incineration is a potential concern because burning items such as blood bags, needles and IV bags could release chemicals, such as dioxins or mercury, into the air, said Orris, who also is a physician, during a 15-minute presentation at the beginning of the discussion. Dioxins are part of a family of potentially cancer-causing chemicals created when chlorinated items, such as plastics and IV fluids, are burned.

Orris said when discovered that medical-waste incinerators can create these chemicals, he felt it went against the principle of medicine.

“We were taught do no harm, above all, do no harm,” he said. “And we were doing harm, not as physicians, but as an industry, we were doing harm.”

Clare Delgado, one of the members of Evanston Health and Environment Network who spoke on the panel, said she just learned about the existence of the hospital’s incinerator in the last year, and her concern about it has risen as she has learned more.

“Many of these incinerators have closed,” said Delgado, who lives five blocks from the hospital. “There are only a handful of them and one of them is right in our backyard.”

Residents created the group about six months ago to learn more about the issue of medical-waste incineration, environmental regulations and compliance of the Evanston Hospital incinerator said Shayle Miller, the other group member on the panel and also lives two blocks from the hospital.

“We think we have concerns,” Miller said, “and we want to get all the facts together and see what we’re going to do about it next.”

Jay Terry, director of Evanston’s department of health and human services, also spoke at the event to explain city issues related the disposal of medical waste. The city provides no municipal regulation of the incinerator because such regulations are enforced by the Illinois division of the Environmental Protection Agency. City financial concerns also would make city enforcement difficult, Terry said.

“To be honest the city government does not have the capacity,” he said. “We do not have the people on staff to do an air quality test. It is not a city function.”

But Amy Kipfer, who lives in south Evanston but teaches at Orrington Elementary School near the hospital, attended the meeting and said she thinks it’s easy for people to ignore what they can’t see.

“As a community we can see a rat or something running. And it’s easier to turn a blind eye to things that can be as dangerous, if not more, and that’s the air,” she said.

Although the discussion might have raised resident concerns, it was not meant to be a debate against medical-waste incineration or Evanston Hospital, SEED co-chairwoman Tiffany Grobelski said.

“It’s called a debate, but it’s really more of a panel discussion,” said Grobelski, a Weinberg sophomore. “The purpose is to inform people about the issue so they can make their own decision.”

Evanston Hospital administrators declined to participate, said SEED member Kristen Ounanian, who helped organize the event. And because the hospital did not decline until last week, the group had no time to find a representative of an opposing position, said Ounanian, an Education sophomore.