CBF Study: Baltimore Incinerator Causes $55 Million in Health Problems Per Year

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—A study commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) concludes that living near the Wheelabrator trash incinerator in Baltimore is similar to living with a smoker, at least for some children, senior citizens, and others with sensitive lungs. But the harm caused by the plant stretches into other states as well, causing $55 million annually in health problems.

"Maryland must require an immediate and significant reduction in pollution from this plant, before the health of city residents is further compromised due to harmful emissions. Technology is available to achieve this. Furthermore, Maryland must require human health impacts to be considered in any evaluation of future emission limits for this facility. A private for-profit company should not be allowed to pollute our air and water, nor harm our citizens' health," said CBF President Will Baker.

The report, authored by George D. Thurston of New York University School of Medicine, focused on Wheelabrator as Maryland considers new nitrogen oxide (NOx) limits for the plant. But the incinerator is one of many sources of NOx pollution in the region that may have similar effects on human health and the environment.

CBF's push to lower NOx from the Wheelabrator incinerator is part of the organization's broader initiative to ensure that air pollution is reduced sufficiently to meet the regional plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Currently, about one-third of the nitrogen pollution entering the Bay comes from air pollution from power plants, vehicles, farms, industrial, and other sources.

The Thurston report evaluated the effect of fine particulate matter from the Wheelabrator facility on nearby and far-reaching populations. This pollutant is composed of soot coming directly from the Wheelabrator facility on Russell Street and secondary particles formed from sulfur oxides and NOx in the emissions. The report calculated both the human health impacts and their cost.

The trash incinerator, near Baltimore's sports stadiums and I-95, has the greatest health impacts in Baltimore City, and counties downwind of the city, the report concluded. Thurston said his earlier research showed the increase in lung cancer from long-term exposure to fine particulate matter in a polluted city is roughly the same as the increase in lung cancer of a non-smoker who breathes passive smoke while living with a smoker, or about 20 percent increase in lung cancer risk. Many Baltimore City residents in disadvantaged neighborhoods also suffer from other health conditions. Breathing smoke from the trash incinerator is an added hazard.

Because much of the incinerator's emissions are carried on the wind, more than half of the plant's air pollution health impacts accrued in states downwind of Maryland.

The plant produced about 1,100 tons of nitrogen oxides last year. It was the fifth-largest emitter of nitrogen oxides in Maryland in 2016. The largest is the Lehigh Cement plant in Carroll County (2,700 tons), followed by the Raven Power plant in Anne Arundel (2,500 tons), NRG Chalk Point Generation Station in Prince George's County (2,300 tons), and the Luke Paper Company in Allegany County (1,900 tons). The emissions rules for those plants currently are not up for renewal by Maryland's Department of Environment (MDE).

Breathing fine particulate matter from the incinerator or other sources over a long period, especially for people with sensitive lungs, can cause health issues such as chronic bronchitis, exacerbated asthma symptoms, even death. All these come with a cost: medical treatment, lost work days, and costs associated with mortality, according to the report.

All told, fine particulate matter from the Wheelabrator smokestack results in health and mortality costs of nearly $55 million a year, the report calculated. About $21 million of that is in Maryland. The largest share of those costs is associated with mortality. On average, 5.5 people die each year from breathing the particles from the incinerator over years, at least two of those persons in Maryland, according to the report. 

MDE is drafting updated rules for NOx emissions from Wheelabrator. The proposed rule would lower the plant's NOx limit to 150 ppm over a 24-hour average. That limit is in line with other similarly regulated plants around the country at this time. But CBF is urging that as part of longer-term feasibility study on emission reductions at the incinerator, MDE consider human health and environmental impacts to help guide future limits. CBF is also urging MDE to ensure that the more stringent future limit be established as quickly as possible.

Thurston is a noted expert in the evaluation of human health effects of air pollution. He served on the Clean Air Scientific Committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Committee on the Health Effects of Incineration of the National Academy of Sciences, and other bodies.

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