A Burning Problem

April 2001 / Abell Reports / Environment, Health and Human Services

Air pollution from power plants and incinerators is a widespread cause of ill health in Maryland, but one that the state’s policymakers can curb.

The air that Marylanders breathe contains significant amounts of unhealthy pollutants, some of which now seem to be much more harmful than we understood just a year ago. Power plants and incinerators play a
major role in producing these pollutants.

Power plant emissions raise your risks of heart and lung failure. During the last year, researchers were able for the first time to estimate the number of lives cut short in Maryland by microscopic particles formed from power plant emissions, as discussed later in this article. The estimate is 927 per year, more than the number of deaths per year from automobile accidents or murder. Research indicates that these microscopic
particles cause death primarily by penetrating the body’s defenses against larger particles and then triggering heart and lung failure.

Incinerator emissions raise your cancer risk. Also within the last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that an American’s risk of getting cancer during his or her lifetime from dioxin may be as high as 1 in 100. Garbage and medical waste incinerators are a major source of dioxin.

Power plants and incinerators both increase your children’s risk of being born with brain damage. A report funded by The Abell Foundation and written by the MaryPIRG Foundation last year revealed that Maryland fish contain concentrations of mercury as high as three times the level that triggers further investigation in the neighboring state of Delaware. Mercury can cause neurological impairment in fetuses of women who consume it in fish. It is released into the environment primarily from the smokestacks of power plants and incinerators.

However, there are solutions. Maryland’s policymakers can take steps to greatly reduce the effect of power plants and incinerators on our health. This article will examine the problem and offer four  recommendations for curtailing it:

  1. Control power plant emissions and shift toward clean energy technologies
  2. Cease promotion of municipal solid waste incineration
  3. Minimize medical waste incineration and rely on better alternatives
  4. Warn Marylanders when fish have become dangerously contaminated with mercury