OPINION | Incineration vs. Recycling: A public health issue


It is mid-August. After an extended cool spell the weather is warming up again with higher humidity. A notice is posted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency stating that the next few days will be Code Yellow for poor air quality. The warning assures us that “the majority of the public will not experience health effects when AQI levels are moderate.” However, “unusually sensitive people should consider limiting their prolonged exertion.”

In the meantime, a new study from a cardiology research team, including researchers from Tufts University, Harvard University and the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at Beth Israel demonstrates that air pollution can trigger Atrial Fibrillation (AF) in susceptible people. There have been numerous studies that seemed to establish associations between air pollution and health.

But this study actually presents evidence to demonstrate that “air pollution is an acute trigger of AF. As the authors indicate and of particular concern, the higher odds of AF were observed at air quality levels well under ambient air quality standards prescribed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).” This means that relatively low levels of air pollution can interfere with the electrical system of the heart in some people.


In this study they followed patients with internally placed automatic defibrillators. A Fib can cause problems in some cases because little blood clots can form when the heart isn’t pumping the blood out effectively and is, instead, sloshing it around in the atrial heart chambers. The clots can travel to the lungs or brain, causing strokes or other significant health problems. And if your heart isn’t pumping blood effectively—this means your organs may not be getting the blood they need to function at an optimum level. The episode of AF needed to last at least 30 seconds to be counted in this study. Since these surgically impanted defibrillators keep a record of the heart rhythms they are managing, they can track what has happened when. In this case the researchers discovered a pattern. They found that even a small increase in particulates (PM2.5) and other air pollutants increased the odds of AF incidents within two hours of exposure by 26%.

It was noted that, “Indeed, the risk of AF following acute exposure to air pollution may be even higher in cities with particularly high levels of air pollution, as the average PM2.5 during the study period was [less than] 60% of the current EPA annual average standard of 15 µg/m3.” This symbol translates into Micrograms per Cubic Meter of Air. You do not have to be familiar with this measurement symbol to see that 9 is probably 60% of 15 so this would mean less than 9 µg/m3. In summary—even low levels of air pollution, within the acceptable limits set by the EPA, can impact the very impulses that keep the hearts of cardiac patients beating properly.

Determining Acceptable Limits for Pollutants

New scientific studies seem to show bad health impacts at lower and lower levels of exposure to pollutants and toxins. But any attempt to lower what is considered an acceptable limit can meet with strong opposition by impacted commercial and industrial interests, for example. “Acceptable” is not only based on science. In the real world, any pollution limits are political compromises to some extent between those who believe tighter regulations are necessary to protect the public and the environment and the impacted interests who will object to what they consider to be over-regulation. The nature of the politics around many regulations usually results in some sort of a compromise position regarding the definition of Acceptable.

The MPCA air quality website defines Code Yellow as 12.1-35.4 µg/m3. 35.4 is almost 4 times higher than 9— the level that triggered A Fib. Still, this is considered a “moderate” level of fine particulates. The MPCA would probably consider people with automatic defibrillators as “unusually sensitive people.”


Research indicates that certain levels of particulates and ozone can also cause asthma in children. In a letter to Senators Amy Klobuchar and Lamar Alexander in 2009, several respected physicians from other states specializing in pediatrics, family medicine and allergy-immunology submitted concerns and also testified before Congress about the health impacts of higher levels of ozone and particulate matter from biomass incinerators. For many, a working definition of biomass includes garbage, wood and chicken manure “feed stock” for incinerators.


“In the realm of respiratory disease, recent findings show that the exposure to higher levels of ozone and particulate matter cause asthma in children … Previous data, on shorter exposures at lower levels, showed that symptoms were aggravated and/or prolonged … but now the evidence shows that such exposure for greater duration at levels already occurring is causative.”

These physicians are saying that exposure to even “lower levels” of this type of air pollution over a longer period of time doesn’t just exacerbate asthma symptoms—but actually causes asthma.

The testimony continues: “In addition, further research has shown that the effects of exposure has not only a “trigger” effect, but also a sustained effect, which compromises cardiorespiratory [heart and lung] physiology for days … The impact is greatest with children, and people of all ages with pre-existent chronic disease. In California, the highest incidence of asthma corresponds to the areas with the highest pollution levels … Nationwide, the American Lung Association estimates that the cost of treating asthma in children is more than $21 billion dollars.”

So, in this case, “unusually sensitive people” would appear to include children and people of all ages with pre-existing chronic conditions. This seems like a significant portion of the population! They go on to note, “In Atlanta, during the 1996 Olympics when the air pollution was kept lower than normal primarily through transportation restrictions, treatments of asthma in the emergency room dropped 55% and the number of office visits for asthma control decreased 61% …” There are other studies that show dramatic decreases in asthma symptoms very quickly after pollution levels are reduced.

In summary, it is important to understand that Acceptable pollution standards do not simply follow the latest science. They are subject to the give and take of political decision making, impacted just like anything else by the influence of powerful interests.

I have only noted a few of the many health problems associated with exposure to the emissions and ash from garbage incinerators. An excellent summary is in a 2008 report: “Incinerators Trash Community Health,” compiled by the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives.

http://no-burn.org/downloads/Incinerators Trash Community Health.pdf

Bringing it Home

In Hennepin County, the Minnesota Department of Health has broken down the incidents of asthma between those living in Minneapolis and in Suburban Hennepin County. Using 2010 numbers, the asthma rate for Hennepin County children as a whole was 9.2%. This broke down into 11.4% for Minneapolis children and 8.2% for Suburban Hennepin County children. This is a 28% difference in asthma rates between urban and suburban children!

A 2010 Hennepin County report states that the garbage going to HERC comes from Minneapolis, St Louis Park and Minnetonka. According to this report, the majority comes from the suburbs. These asthma stats beg the question as to why we should be burning trash in Downtown Minneapolis at all—much less shipping it in from the suburbs. What could be the health impact on our vulnerable populations of burning 2 million pounds of garbage a day?

In the meantime, Hennepin County and Covanta continue to ask for an increase in the garbage allowed to be burned at HERC by over 400,000 pounds per day. County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin recently stated that the reason the county needs to increase the allowable capacity at the Garbage Burner is because “People won’t recycle.” (This was last stated publicly on the KFAI radio show Truth to Tell on 6/10/13.) The latest stats on Minneapolis recycling rates appear to dispute this claim.

Kellie Kish, the new Minneapolis recycling coordinator, reports that the city’s first full month of fully distributed one-sort recycling carts, in July 2013, showed a 57.75% increase in recycling over this time last year. The recycling rate by weight for July 2012 was only 16.4%. This pitiful rate does not come close to the recycling rates of other progressive cities, like San Francisco, that have waste diversion rates from landfills and incinerators (they have none) of over 75%.

The recycling rate for July 2013 is 24.4%. Ms Kish said that the city reduced its garbage going to HERC or a landfill by 8-9% due to increases in recycling. This is good news!

In Ward 10, Council Member Meg Tuthill hired an intern to check on the compliance of all of the apartment buildings to make sure they were offering recycling to their residents, as city rules dictated. When I asked her why she decided to hire an intern specifically for that purpose, she said, “Because I was getting calls from constituents complaining that there wasn’t recycling available.” Within one month her intern contacted every apartment building and made sure they all had recycling operations set up properly! It doesn’t seem like it was that difficult. This needs to happen all over the city. Given a choice and an opportunity—Minneapolitans are choosing to recycle.

On the same Truth To Tell program, Commissioner McLaughlin insisted that garbage incineration was an “interim measure until we can get recycling rates up.” Well, if July 2013 is any indication as the first month that single sort is fully rolled out, we are probably going to get recycling rates up sooner rather than later. Any decisions on increases in the HERC allowable burning capacity by the City Council should reflect this happy new reality.

The only bad news with this increase in recycling is that HERC can legally make up any diversion of it’s fuel supply (recyclables that get recycled rather than burned) by bringing in more trash from outside of the city. So the higher our recycling rates—the more trash emissions Minneapolis residents are exposed to from elsewhere. Not the greatest incentive! This arrangement needs to be re-evaluated to reward, not punish, Minneapolitans for doing the right thing.

Our Real Choices

The goal should be burning and landfilling less, not more, garbage. Some things can be recycled. Some can be composted. Some shouldn’t be used at all—like plastic bags that are unnecessary and cause such an impact on the environment and even gum up the sorting operations in Single Sort Recycling.

An exploration of a plastic bag ban has been in the works for the past few months by CM Tuthill, working with the city and businesses that would be potentially impacted. If it can work in San Francisco, and other cities around the country, then we have examples Minneapolis can learn from in implementing our own program.

But there is no good reason to increase the allowable amount of trash going to the Burner when we are just beginning to see what effective recycling and composting policies can do. The exciting question is: What can Zero Waste look like for Minneapolis?

Paul Connett to Speak on Incineration vs Zero Waste at Mayflower Church

We are fortunate to have Paul Connett, an internationally renowned scientist, anti-incinerator activist, and visionary Zero Waste advocate, making a presentation Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 7 p.m. at Mayflower Church. He will be discussing why incineration and landfilling are part of the problem and Zero Waste strategies are the answer. He helped an Italian city become a successful Zero Waste community and will be discussing his new book on the topic. He has been on the front lines of making Zero Waste strategies work all over the world.

With some creativity and commitment, it seems like the right time to get this Burner Monkey off of our backs!

Mayflower Church is at 106 E. Diamond Lake Rd. The event is free and open to the public.