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Forum addresses dangers of burning medical waste, plastics that can give off cancer-causing toxins

With a couple of recent victories in hand, groups are expanding their fight against waste-burning incinerators, including those that emit cancer-causing toxins.

One focus of attention at a forum Saturday in Missoula was the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton. The federal facility operates the last incinerator in Montana that burns medical waste. The waste is created from its work researching infectious diseases.

Last week, the Veteran Affairs Hospital at Fort Harrison announced it would quit burning waste at its incinerator. That announcement in Helena was preceded by the federal government shelving plans to build a nuclear waste incinerator at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls.

But a scientist with the National Institutes of Health, which operates the Hamilton labs, says getting rid of the incinerator may not be possible because of the need to destroy infectious pathogens.

On Saturday, about 50 people attended a Missoula forum to learn more about the dangers of cancer-causing dioxins that are released into the air by such incinerators. While the issue may be destroying the dangerous pathogens researchers work with, too often all waste from businesses with incinerators, from office paper to plastics to metal tools, are fed to the incinerator. Although pathogens are destroyed, the incinerators release dioxins from the burned materials. Dioxin is a carcinogen that has been linked to birth defects, fertility problems, hormone dysfunction and immune system suppression.

Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University in New York and recognized dioxin and incineration expert, said community activists must wage campaigns against incinerators to protect public health.

In the United States there about 100 municipal waste incinerators and about 2,000 at hospitals. Many of the incinerators began operating in the 1980s but have been under scrutiny since federal health and environmental scientists reassessed the dangers of dioxins in 1994.

Since then, many communities and hospitals have worked to lower the health risks.

Those institutions that haven't changed practices, Connett said, have often created "a fortress mentality" to deflect public concern.

"These institutions really have no reason to fear the public," he said. "They have to have humility to sit down with staff and say we need to do what is right."

A colorful speaker and recognized expert on the dangers of dioxins created by incinerators, Connett said that the western Montana community should engage the Rocky Mountain Labs in discussion aimed at replacing the incinerator with a different waste-destruction device or, at the very least, lowering the amount of material unrelated to the pathogens from reaching the incinerator.

Robert Bergman, a retired Rocky Mountain Labs administrator still working with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the Hamilton incinerators burns about 100 tons of waste each year, much of it animal bedding that needs to be destroyed.

The lab works with what are called Class III biological organisms, which are agents that can cause serious illness or death such as tuberculosis, influenza and Q fever.

Bergman said that closing down the Hamilton incinerator may not be possible.

"We consider it the safest way" of eliminating pathogens, he said, adding that the labs' major safety concern is minimizing the risk of disease infecting the community.

Bryony Schwan, executive director of Women's Voices for the Earth, said she hoped to meet with Rocky Mountain Labs officials to discuss scaling back or halting the use of the incinerator.

The Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. pulp mill near Frenchtown operates an incinerator that burns plastics.

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