The students at Benjamin Franklin High School have it right. They have organized against Energy Answers' waste-to-energy incinerator planned for a location within one mile of three schools in Curtis Bay.
Not only should it not be built so close to their school, it should not be built at all. Calling it a trash-burning "power plant" doesn't make it safe or change the fact that it incinerates industrial waste including old tires, plastics and construction materials — up to 1.4 million tons a year.
This industrial waste produces dangerous emissions such as mercury and other heavy metals, dioxin and other chlorinated chemicals. When mercury deposits in waterways, it gets converted to methyl mercury and concentrated in fish. When pregnant women and children consume the fish, neonates and children can suffer neurological damage and diminished IQ. Some heavy metals like cadmium, chromium and nickel increase the risk of lung cancer. Dioxin, one of the most dangerous chemicals, is formed when chlorinated organic compounds are incinerated, and hence, incinerators are the major source of dioxin in the environment. In addition to causing cancer, it weakens immunological response to infection and can disrupt hormonal action, including reproductive function. It accumulates in our fat and doesn't go away.
Fine particulate matter is the pathway that allows many of these dangerous substances to enter the body. Smaller than 1/20th the width of a human hair, fine particulate matter escapes the lung's defense mechanisms. Heavy metals and organic compounds like dioxin attach to fine particulate matter and are carried deep into the lungs, where they cross into the blood stream. Eventually the pollutants settle in the body and cause harm.
A recently published paper from MIT estimated that there were 200,000 premature deaths nationwide in 2005 from fine particulate matter. Maryland led 47 other states with 114 premature deaths per 100,000 people, and Baltimore City led the list of 20 metropolitan cities with 140 deaths per 100,000 people. Fine particulate matter pollution increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer and has been famously demonstrated this month in scenes from Shanghai, where the air is so dirty you can see it.
Baltimore does not currently meet air quality standards for either ozone or particulate matter pollution. Despite pollution controls that would reduce incinerator emissions from what they would have been decades ago, Energy Answers will still be permitted to emit 156 tons a year of fine particulate matter as well as 446 tons of sulfur dioxide, a particulate matter precursor. It will be permitted to emit 600 tons of nitrogen oxides and 96 tons of volatile organic compounds, both ozone precursors.
This does not include what comes out of the tailpipes from the 400 to 600 diesel trucks a day that will be hauling waste into Curtis Bay and carrying away treated toxic ash.
IN 2010, 20 percent of Curtis Bay inhabitants lived below the poverty line. It was 79th in the country for the ZIP codes with the highest emissions of air toxics that year and among the top 10 ZIP codes in the entire country for the years 2005 through 2009. Not surprisingly, Curtis Bay has high mortality rates from heart attacks, lower respiratory diseases and lung cancer, all health conditions related to air pollution. This is an environmental justice issue.
Waste-to-energy should not be called "Tier I renewable clean energy" and entitled to tax incentives. Per kilowatt hour, waste to energy produces more lead, mercury, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide than the two Baltimore coal-fired plants. Its yearly permit for lead and mercury emissions far exceeds what even the coal-fired power plants in the area are emitting.
Instead of incineration, we should use tax incentives to get green jobs into this part of the city. Baltimore should become a leader in reaching higher rates of recycling, reuse and composting. We should reduce our waste, not just burn it. What we reuse, we don't have to remake. We can no longer afford environmentally, nor health wise, to be a culture that throws away (or burns) what we don't want anymore. Join the students. No incinerator in Curtis Bay. Support the students of Curtis Bay.
Dr. Gwen DuBois is an internist at Sinai, a member of the board of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility and a member of the public health committee of Med/Chi. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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