WHAT began as one community’s struggle to keep an incinerator out of the neighborhood has grown into a national fight against this method of treating infectious hospital waste.
With cries of public health concerns, residents of La Aurora de Heredia, just north of San José, have issued a call to arms to environmental groups, municipalities and other communities, and it appears the first battle has been won.
Last year, Fénix Médica de Costa Rica, S.A., proposed the construction of an incinerator in the northern San José neighborhood of Tibás. After the proposal was rejected there, the project, which proponents said would have treated 300 kilograms of hospital waste per hour, was proposed for an industrial zone in Barreal de Heredia, 1.5 kilometers from the community of La Aurora (TT, Oct. 24, 2003).
ALTHOUGH the Ministry of Health approved the preliminary plan in November 2003, the Municipality of Heredia later rejected it. No proposals to build incinerators in Heredia currently exist, Mayor Javier Carvajal told The Tico Times.
However, the support of the Ministry of Health for this project has sparked renewed concern among those who oppose the incineration of hospital waste. A group has formed that would like to see the Ministry do for the country what the Social Security System (Caja) has done for the country’s public hospitals: prohibit the use of incineration as a treatment of medical waste.
Lead by Agenda Local 21, of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, the fight against incineration has grown in recent months to include more than 100 environmental groups and is at least 300 people strong, according to Agenda Local 21 executive committee member Francisco San Lee, an environmental education advisor to the Public Education Ministry.
THROUGH workshops, community meetings and e-mail correspondence, residents in La Aurora initially brought their fight to the surrounding communities of San Francisco, Belén, Lagunilla and San Joaquín de Flores.
The crusade has since been carried to the cantons of Esparza and Montes de Oro in Puntarenas province, and some regions of the Atlantic zone and northwestern Guanacaste province.
The crusaders’ message is that toxins released from incinerators can cause cancer, respiratory damage and birth defects.
The ashes created when medical waste is burned are often mixed with heavy metals and can contaminate water and soil if not properly disposed, according to Sonia Torres, of the Association of Ecological Community Users of the Golf of Nicoya (CEUS).
“People are surprised that they are promoting this type of technology,” Torres said.
HOWEVER, the Ministry of Health says research shows incinerators that burn waste at more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit are not dangerous, as long as controls on temperature and gas emissions are monitored.
“If a company has good control, we accept them, if they don’t have good control, we don’t,” said Arturo Navarro, an industrial chemist for the Department of the Protection of the Human Environment at the Ministry of Health.
Fénix Médica representatives declined requests by The Tico Times to comment on their incinerator proposal, saying articles published by the paper last year on the subject contained “misstatements.” Details were not provided.
The Ministry of Health does prohibit burning materials containing chlorine because cancer-causing toxins can be released, Navarro said. Many plastics contain chlorine molecules.
Navarro said the Ministry often refers to information from the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, and cites the use of thousands of incinerators in that country.
However, according to Agenda Local 21, only a handful of the incinerators used in the United States are monitored for the release of diotoxins.
BEYOND medical waste, environmental groups are concerned about the treatment of waste as a whole in Costa Rica. They hope to create a nationwide system for the management of all waste, including treatment of toxins and separation of recyclable materials, far beyond what is currently being implemented by the Caja (see separate story).
“The problem is not the trash, the problem is the management of the trash,” said San Carlos Deputy Mayor Wilberth Rojas.
“There needs to be a solution of the same intensity as the problem,” agreed Maria Fournier, president of the environmental group Yiski, which works primarily with waste treatment.
“If we humans have had the ability to create such a serious problem, we also have to have the capacity to resolve it,” she concluded.