Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Stericycle medical waste incineration plant in North Salt Lake City Thursday, May 30, 2013.

South Davis County and North Salt Lake are one of Utah's true pollution hot spots. Pollution from the five oil refineries, I-15, Legacy Parkway, nearby Hill Air Force Base and numerous smaller industries all converge on the area.

Stericycle in North Salt Lake, the hospital waste incinerator, as a relatively minor ingredient in the larger pollution stew, often escapes public dialogue about our air pollution. That should never have been the case, but especially now that Stericycle has been caught by the Division of Air Quality falsifying records and emitting 400 percent more dioxins than their permit allows.

Recently, another study of the health consequences of air pollution received widespread media attention. In a survey of pregnant mothers throughout the country, those exposed to the highest pollution had their children diagnosed with autism at twice the rate of mothers exposed to the least amount of pollution. This should make Stericycle front and center in the battle of public health protection along the Wasatch Front.

Dozens of other studies have confirmed a similarly strong association between air pollution and other types of adverse brain outcomes in both children and adults, including lower intelligence, attention deficit and behavioral disorders, more addictive behavior and depression, higher rates of strokes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases, microscopic brain changes indicative of Alzheimer's, and an acceleration of the cognitive decline that naturally occurs with aging. A very disturbing laundry list indeed.

Utah has the nation's highest rate of autism — about double the national average — one in every 32 Utah boys, and one in every 85 Utah girls. While genetics play a role, other studies suggest that two thirds of the "epidemic" of autism is environmentally caused. With about 800 new autistic children born in Utah every year, this is a true public health crisis.

At any one time about 40,000 Utah women are pregnant. Most of them will not be able to avoid breathing Utah's infamous air pollution for some time during the pregnancy. It is now generally accepted that chemicals that minimally affect an adult can have devastating effects on a newborn. None of the safety regulations that apply to incinerators like Stericycle are adequate to protect the fetus, nor do they address the fact that the timing of exposure during embryonic development can be much more important than the amount of exposure. The first three months after conception are the most critical for brain development. The fetal brain adds about 250,000 cells per minute reaching an eventual total of about 200 billion brain cells between the age of 1 and 2. Tiny amounts of chemicals and a single exposure during this window can damage this delicate process with lifelong and irreversible consequences.

The components of Stericycle's emissions read like an all-star lineup of brain toxins for children — dioxins, lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, chlorine, ammonia and benzene — spreading miles from the smoke stack. Despite Stericycle's permit, there is no such thing as a safe level of exposure to many of these highly toxic substances, especially for a pregnant mother.

The amount of chemicals that a baby absorbs relates to the total contaminants that have built up in the mother's fat over her lifetime. This will increase for women who live near incinerators. Most samples of human breast milk contain a disturbing 350 chemicals. Dioxins, for example, concentrate in humans, especially in breast milk, and nursing infants consume 10 to 20 times more dioxin than the average adult.

Stericycle's violations and fraudulent reporting are obvious reasons for concern. But even if their operation was conducted with utmost integrity, it would still represent an unacceptable community health hazard. Start-ups, shut-downs and other "events" result in frequent bypassing of pollution control equipment, documented by Stericycle's next door neighbors. Dioxins produced during unregulated "start-ups" can be twice an entire year's dioxin emissions under steady state conditions, and do not appear in emission reports.

Incineration of hospital waste is outdated technology. Much safer methods are available to manage the waste. But considering our serious air pollution problem, our truly alarming autism rates and the connection between the two, we must give our children priority and eliminate as many risks as possible. Stericycle must close its incinerator doors.

Brian Moench is the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environments and a member of the health and radiation committee of the Physicians for Social Responsibility.