SALT LAKE CITY — An initial state health department review of soil sampling done near Stericycle a decade ago reveals little health risk to the public, but enough time has passed that more testing is warranted.
The announcement Tuesday by the Utah Department of Health means the agency is embarking on the second tier of a three-step process to examine the potential health risks associated with emissions from the medical waste incineration plant.
In particular, the study will focus on the presence of dioxins, chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency has termed a likely cancer-causing substance.
"This was a high-level look at the information out there," said department spokesman Tom Hudachko. "There was not any information that we uncovered to believe there is a health hazard, but there is enough uncertainty that it warrants additional analysis and sampling on our part."
The agency's Environmental Epidemiology Program examined results of a comparative analysis conducted in 2003 that surveyed soil samples from multiple locations in the Rocky Mountain region.
Conducted by the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health and the University of Utah, the soil dioxin study also included Davis County and the state Division of Air Quality, focusing on samples taken about 900 feet from the plant.
Hudachko said the study compared dioxin values in Davis County with the Denver Front Range in soils at the former site of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a chemical weapons manufacturing center that closed in 1992.
The data showed the Davis County samples contained about a third of the dioxin levels found in Denver, with values at about 1/50th of the standard that indicates a need for more study.
"Though the 2003 sampling data indicates that the levels of dioxin found in the soil within the vicinity of the Stericycle incinerator are well below the levels that would indicate a health concern, the cited air emissions violations create an environmental concern," wrote Dr. Craig Dietrich, manager and toxicologist with the agency's Environmental Health Hazards Assessment Section.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert ordered the health department probe after the region's only medical waste incineration plant — situated in North Salt Lake amid homes and businesses — flunked the requirements of its state-issued permit, allegedly violating pollution thresholds that allow it to operate.
Scientists with the Utah Division of Air Quality examined emissions data from stack tests and daily logs documenting the amount of material incinerated, which indicated violations from a December 2011 test. The logs, according to the division, were also altered to misrepresent the volume and were not reflective of normal operations, resulting in a criminal probe that remains underway by the EPA.
In May, the division issued a notice of violation to the company, which is now disputing regulators' assertions that it was out of compliance with its permit.
Neighbors and clean-air advocates have called repeatedly for the plant's shutdown, urging Herbert to exercise his executive authority to push the business from North Salt Lake, demanding the air quality regulators yank the pollution permit and seeking action from city officials in North Salt Lake.
The outcry and concerns over the level of contaminants released from Stericycle such as dioxin prompted Herbert to order the health department analysis in October, with results that will ultimately be certified independently by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.
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