The most dangerous products of incineration are tiny, invisible,
pollutioncoated particles released into the atmosphere. In the air
pollution business, these are known as "fine particles." Despite the
best available control technology, incinerators emit large quantities
of such particles, which typically measure two micrometers or less in
diameter. A micrometer is a millionth of a meter and a meter is 39
inches. Pollution control devices like Venturi scrubbers and baghouse
filters are not very efficient at trapping these small particles, so to
save money for incinerator operators (and thus encourage incineration,
which is the stated goal of the EPA), the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency has declared it "OK" for incinerators to emit large quantities
of the smallest particles.
Federal law says that an incinerator is allowed to emit 180 milligrams
of particles with each cubic meter of air (or 0.08 grains with each
cubic foot of air). There are 437.5 grains in an ounce. One large
incinerator smoke stack may emit 100,000 cubic feet of air every
minute, day in and day out, or 52 billion cubic feet per year. It would
be legal for such an incinerator to emit 300 tons of particles yearly.
Typically, half of these particles will measure 2 micrometers or less
in diameter and thus will be "respirable," which means that you and I
can breathe them into the very bottom of our lungs because nature has
provided us with no defense against particles this small. From our
lungs, they can pass directly into our blood. (See RHWN #131, where we
discussed the penetration of these fine particles into human lungs.)
The National Academy of Sciences, in AIRBORNE PARTICLES (Baltimore:
University Park Press, 1979), discussed the health dangers of fine
particles from many points of view. The "background level" of these
fine particles in uninhabited regions of Canada is 1 to 3 micrograms in
each cubic meter of air; in the rural Midwest, you'll find 5 to 12
micrograms in each cubic meter of air. This is not a "natural"
background level; it represents pollution created by humans.
Nevertheless, this background level is a good standard against which to
judge the allowable emission of particles from incinerators. The
allowable emissions from an incinerator exceed background
concentrations by anywhere from a factor of 15,000 to a factor of
180,000. The EPA is relying upon dilution to protect you. They will
argue that, by the time those particles reach your lungs, they will be
diluted in a lot of fresh air and thus won't be quite so far above
background levels when you breathe them. But this, of course, depends
upon how close you live to an incinerator, how the wind currents go,
whether there are thermal inversion conditions in your local
atmosphere, and so forth. There is growing evidence (to be presented
next week) that the EPA's dilution strategy isn't safe.
Fine particles remain airborne for long periods of time, and before
they fall to earth they can travel several hundred miles or even
farther. They can present a danger to humans all along their route.
Fine particles weigh so little that they do not respond predictably to
the pull of gravity. The smallest air current keeps them aloft. These
particles are so small that rain drops do not wash them from the
atmosphere. You are no doubt familiar with the force of air being
pushed ahead of a truck barreling down the highway; it gives your car a
push as it goes by. In the same way, raindrops (which measure 500 to
9000 micrometers in diameter) push air ahead of them as they fall, and
they knock fine particles aside instead of washing them to earth.
Increasing the concentration of fine particles in the atmosphere is not
good for people. Hardest hit are those with bronchitis and asthma,
those who are very young or old, and those who exercise outdoors.
Breathing through your mouth (which is one of the first things people
do when they exercise, play sports, or jog) increases the intake of
fine particles into the lungs. In addition, some healthy people absorb
50% more fine particles into their lungs than the average. The reasons
for this are not understood.
One particularly important aspect of fine particles is that they carry
into our lungs pollutants that could not otherwise get there. In this
sense, fine particles have synergistic (multiplier) effects with other
pollutants. The Academy said, "The generally accepted view of synergism
extends beyond potentiation [increasing a pollutant's power] to include
the role of toxic vector [carrier]. Such gases as sulfur dioxide are
probably either adsorbed to the particulate surface or absorbed into
the particles, and thereby transported into the alveolar regions [in
the deep lung], where they exist in high, localized concentrations.
These localized high concentrations [in the lung] could not be produced
without particles. Accordingly, sulfur dioxide sorption to particulate
matter might effectively allow sulfur dioxide penetration into the
alveolar regions at even nominal environmental concentrations of the
gaseous pollutant." In other words, "normal" or "acceptable" levels of
sulfur dioxide may be made dangerous by the presence of fine particles.
"In summary," said the National Academy, "particulate atmospheric
pollutants may be involved in chronic lung disease pathogenesis as
causal factors in chronic bronchitis, as predisposing factors to acute
bacterial and viral bronchitis, especially in children and cigarette
smokers, and as aggravating factors for acute bronchial asthma and the
terminal stages of oxygen deficiency (hypoxia) associated with chronic
bronchitis and/or emphysema and its characteristic form of heart
failure (cor pulmonale)."
'FRONTLINE' TV BROADCAST FEATURES A NOTORIOUS INCINERATOR IN WHO'S
KILLING CALVERT CITY?
PBS (the Public Broadcasting System) aired a program about Calvert
City, Kentucky June 20, 1989. Called WHO'S KILLING CALVERT CITY?, the
program is part of the network's regular "Frontline" series. This story
focuses attention on one of the most shameful and dangerous polluters
in America--the LWD Incinerator--and its neighbors (GAF, BF Goodrich
Like many places in the Midwest and South, Calvert City is dominated by
good old boys who bristle when anyone suggests there's something wrong
with a town that has allowed itself to be victimized by predatory
businessmen whose smoke stacks belch tons of poisonous chemicals into
the public's airspace. But there IS something wrong with towns like
This is a heroic story of grass roots struggle by the Coalition for
Health Concern as they battle the poisoners and try to save the
children of Calvert City from a legacy of danger and disease.
Descriptor terms: lung disease; particulates; air pollution; air
quality; canada; bronchitis; emphysema; calvert city, ky; ky; pbs tv;