Tire burn could cause children severe harm

My Turn Column from the editorial pages of the Burlington Free Press April 23, 2005

By Dr. Jack Mayer

International Paper Co. is submitting its application for a test burn of tires to fuel its plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y. The pollution from this plant drifts over Lake Champlain into Vermont.

New York will rule on the permit in the next few months and Vermont will weigh in on the decision. Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jeff Wennberg and Gov. Jim Douglas have said that Vermont will insist the company install an electrostatic precipitator (ESP) to reduce pollution. Regardless of what they burn, an electrostatic precipitator is a good idea.

I don’t want International Paper to shut down and I’d rather they didn’t burn tires. But if they do, the company will save millions by burning tires instead of oil and they’ll recoup the cost of the electrostatic precipitator in a few years.

If International Paper burns tires without an electrostatic precipitator I have several concerns:

1) Testing for pollutants is tricky business. A short, carefully conducted test burn does not replicate real world conditions and can be made to look “acceptable” (not to be confused with “safe”).

2) Burning tires releases a toxic soup of pollutants. Children are especially at risk. For many of these pollutants there is inadequate information on their toxicity. Hundreds of different toxic pollutants are created by burning tires as well as a tremendous number of small particles that settle deep in people’s lungs.

In International Paper’s 2002 application to burn tires, the mill said its outdated pollution control devices captured 76 percent of particulates. In fact, it captures mostly large particulates, the ones that won’t get into our children’s lungs. The remaining 24 percent are mostly small, respirable particulates loaded with toxic chemicals and they will get into our lungs. Many of these chemicals cause cancer. Small particles worsen asthma and may contribute to heart disease.

3) Risk of cancer and other diseases. Children, fetuses, nursing babies, the elderly, asthmatics, immune suppressed individuals are all much more vulnerable to pollutants. The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Environmental Health (December 2004) concluded that fine particles cause excess mortality and hospitalizations for heart and lung disease, including cancer. In March, acknowledging new evidence of increased health risks from small particles, the EPA announced the Clean Air Interstate Rule to lower particulate emissions from power plants. The research group I worked with at Columbia University recenty published a landmark study documenting chromosomal damage in fetuses from air pollution, damage linked to increased risk of cancer.

4) EPA standards do not mean safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics also concluded that current federal standards for particulates are not protective for children and infants and should be lowered to protect public health. This month the EPA changed its approach to assessing the risk of cancer from chemicals, finally acknowledging that children are much more vulnerable than adults.

5) Breast milk contamination. Organic pollutants on the particles released from burning tires will be transferred from a nursing mother’s body into the fat in her breast milk and into her baby, where they take up long-term residence. If the baby is a girl and nurses her children, the same toxins will be passed on to her babies. After six months of breast feeding, about 20 percent of fat-stored pollutants in a mother’s body have been transferred to her infant. In fact, during breast-feeding, infants are exposed to higher concentrations of organic pollutants than at any subsequent time in their lives. Burning tires only adds to that toxic burden. For all its other health advantages it is still preferable to breast feed, but we should be vigilant.

Shouldn’t we intervene to protect our children before the toxic damage is done? Time after time we’ve learned too late.

It is our responsibility to protect our most vulnerable citizens. International Paper lacks the basic pollution control device, an electrostatic precipitator, needed to minimize these pollutants. Saving money on fuel by burning tires should not take precedence over public health. Industries have a social responsibility to be good corporate citizens and good neighbors.

Jack L. Mayer, M.D., MPH, is a pediatrician from Middlebury and a National Cancer Institute post-doctoral fellow 1987-1990.

MORE INFORMATION: (Links Below)

Is Burning Tires Safe? (176 k pdf file)

IP Environmental Report Card (72k pdf file)

IP History of Law Suits and Permit Violations

Tire Burn Background

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