The following article was published in the March/April 1999 issue of Synergy. Synergy of the Carolinas - A journal of constructive change. Reprinted here with permission.


A Matthews (NC) group concerned about possible toxic emissions from a nearby medical-waste incinerator called in the cavalry - national toxic-waste activist Lois Gibbs.

Lois Gibbs and daughter

Prisoners Of Our Homes (POOH), a grassroots group of incinerator neighbors, has been working with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League to shut down the three-unit Bio-Medical Services complex due to potentially risky levels of mercury and dioxin, both potent carcinogens.

Gibbs, who was president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association when it helped force the evacuation of the town, now works with communities to combat public health problems from industrial pollution before they reach the level they did at Love Canal , where officials for years called toxin levels safe while the rate of children born with birth defects and substantial health complications hit 53% before action was taken.

"According to EPA's own reports, every man, woman and child in this country is already at or near full levels of dioxin exposure. Those in communities near heavy sources of dioxin are at extreme risk - particularly within a 100-mile area," Gibbs said at a Matthews public meeting.

Easygoing environmental standards and casual enforcement have made the Carolinas a target for dumping, says BREDL's Denise Lee. Bio-Medical is accepting medical waste from at least 10 states, she says - waste those states won't allow incinerated.

Bio-Medical owner David Schoonmaker has repeatedly said his incinerators are safe - by state standards they're within legal limits until next year, when new federal standards kick in - and that he'd have no qualms about living beside one.

But he doesn't, points out POOH founder Geneva Johnson - and she does.

When she complained to Mecklenburg County, environmental officials told her the company was in compliance and to date they have "no evidence" of health risks.

"I was told to just go back home to my kitchen," she says, but "we're going to keep fighting this as long as awe have to."

An upcoming state-county air survey could help her and POOH gain ground - except the planned air-quality monitoring doesn't include dioxin testing, which would cost another $30,000.

Bio-Medical doesn't have to meet new federal standards until 2000, leaving them free to exceed for the rest of the year. Until then there are no enforceable standards on dioxin. POOH and BREDL are pushing for help from the county to pay for a realistic evaluation of the potential danger to the community. Six weeks of monitoring will begin in early spring. The county has said that the results will be made available both to the company and to the public.

The EPA standard of 125 nanograms of dioxin per cubic meter emitted was sent back to the drawing board when a federal court found the limits were too high for safety. Bio-Medical's own consultant conducted tests last year and reported dioxin levels from the three incinerator stacks at more than 1,000 nanograms per cubic meter - over 10 times the federal standard deemed inadequate by the court.

Dioxin exposure is particularly hazardous to older people, children and fetuses.<

- by Catherine Mitchell

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Source: 1999 Synergy