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Medical Waste

Protesters push hospital to shut down incinerator

By Sean D. Hamill
Special to the Tribune

June 25, 2004

Saying a year is too long to wait to shut down a medical-waste incinerator, about 30 protesters demonstrated Thursday outside Evanston Hospital and Evanston City Hall.

Although the hospital, 2650 Ridge Ave., informally has agreed to close its incinerator in about a year, residents who live nearby want it shut down by July 30 and want the city to ban them.

"It's a medical institution, and they should first do no harm," Kathy Fischer said at the rally. "It's a hospital. It shouldn't be emitting any pollutants into the air."

Hospital officials say they need at least a year to decommission the incinerator, which provides 15 to 20 percent of the hospital's heat, and get a new boiler installed.

"There are certainly some people who'd like to move it along faster," hospital spokeswoman Joan Trezek said. "But we have agreed to close it in 12 months, and [hospital] President Ray Grady has said if we can move it along faster, we will."

Citing the potential health impact of such chemicals as dioxin and mercury that come out of incinerator smokestacks, opponents say the hospital can and should close it sooner.

They say they are worried because Grady, after saying last week that he would shut down the incinerator in about a year, refused to sign an agreement committing to a date.

"I think it's a rather sad state of affairs when a man who has led this hospital for most of his [25-year] career is being asked to put it in writing," Trezek said, noting that Grady was out of town on business.

The incinerator, which burns 2 million pounds of hospital waste a year, was opened in 1989 at a time when scientific research was beginning to uncover the harmful chemicals that such incinerators emit. Burned medical waste was found to contain dioxin and mercury, chemicals tied to illnesses.

At the time the Evanston incinerator opened, there were about 6,200 medical-waste incinerators in the U.S. But after several studies, stricter rules were imposed on emissions in the 1990s, and of the 2,373 incinerators active in 1997, only 80 are still operating nationwide.

Illinois, with 12 medical-waste incinerators, all but one at hospitals, has more than any other state.

"Since the science has come out, most hospitals have been responsible and shut them down, and Evanston should too," said Bruce Nilles, senior Midwest representative of the Sierra Club. "It just doesn't fit with what they are and what they do to be operating an incinerator in a residential neighborhood."

J.P. Gallagher, the hospital's vice president, said the hospital has agreed to shut down the incinerator because of the residents' concerns even though "there are ways to operate the incinerator without compromising public health."

"Dioxins are clearly a cause for concern, but other public risk factors are clearly worse than the incinerator," he said. "Smoking and auto exhaust offer higher risks than this incinerator."

Nilles was taken aback by the statement.

"The last time I checked, the hospital wasn't in the business of selling cigarettes and not in the car exhaust business either," he said. "The incinerator is something they can control."

Clare Kelly Delgado, a high school Spanish teacher who lives five blocks from the hospital, helped organize the rally.

"It would be bad enough if we were out in a field, but this is burning thousands of pounds of mostly plastic every day within a block of a school and surrounded by homes," she said.

 

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