Sunday, July 29, 2012

A burning issue

Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte has yet to reply to or even acknowledge receipt of a letter sent her by the organization Healthcare Without Harm. The letter, sent July 16, persuades the mayor not to use Pyroclave technology, as proposed by RAD Green Solutions, in dealing with both infectious and non-infectious hospital waste in her city.

According to www.pyroclave.com, Pyroclave uses “the process of pyrolysis, a non-incineration thermal process where wastes are decomposed at very high temperatures without oxygen.”

In fact, an item at the Philippine Information Agency Web site in early June says that RAD has presented its Pyroclave technology to the city as non-burn and thus environmentally safe. Duterte is reportedly seriously considering the proposal.

But HCWH executive director for Southeast Asia Merci Ferrer believes that while pyrolisis is a fancy term, it’s still burn technology. She cites a study by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, titled “Incinerators in Disguise,” which says those with names like “’gasification,’ ‘pyrolysis,’ ‘plasma arc,’ and ‘waste-to-energy’ all emit dioxins and other harmful pollutants, despite industry claims that they are ‘green’ technologies.”

The end-product of Pyroclave is char.

All incinerators have been expressly prohibited under Section 20 of the Clean Air Act of 1999. The total ban took effect July 17, 2003. In fact, this has been a source of pride for the Philippines because our Asian neighbors do not even have such legislation. So yes, on paper, we are ahead.

Incinerators emit dioxins, which the World Health Organization has declared a known human carcinogen. The UNDP-Global Medwaste Project describes dioxin as “a family of 210 highly toxic and persistent chemicals that are unintentional byproducts of medical waste incineration. Dioxin has been linked to cancer, effects on the immune system, reproductive and developmental disorders, and hormone disruption.”

Ferrer adds that incinerators also do away with the requirement of segregating waste – again a violation of an environmental law, specifically the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000. Since everything will be incinerated together, it doesn’t make any sense to separate the infectious from the non-infectious hospital waste.

The letter was also sent to Department of Health – Center for Health Development Region XI director Abdullah Dumama, Jr. and Department of the Environment and Natural Resources – Environment Management Bureau Region XI director Ruth Tawantawan.

The office of Director Dumama has asked for an additional day to respond to HCWH’s letter. Engineer Ricardo Biong, air quality monitoring officer of DENR-EMB Davao, says RAD Green Solutions is only due to present its technology on the week of July 30-August 3 for the issuance of the environmental safety standards compliance permit. Director Tawantawan’s office has also committed to furnishing HCWH a copy of the evaluation around the second week of August, after the presentation and testing.

Yes, no permits have yet been issued. It goes without saying that health and environment officials must be strict in their evaluation – regardless of whether the companies are well-connected or not.

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It is not as though there are no other ways to deal with medical waste, says Ferrer. Autoclave and microwave are examples of such alternatives.

“Non-burn technologies such as autoclaves operate at temperatures that are high enough to kill microorganisms but insufficient to cause combustion, thereby avoiding the creation of toxic byproducts like dioxin,” says the UNDP-Global Medwaste Project. (http://gefmedwaste.org/article.php?list=type&type=62)

“Microwave treatment is essentially a steam-based process, since treatment occurs through the introduction of moist heat and steam generated by microwave energy.” the site continues.

There is more good news. Ferrer says that autoclave is available here in the Philippines, with Philippine manufacturers offering them at reasonable prices. There is one along Bambang Street, City of Manila. Another big autoclave manufacturer is in Cebu, while another one producing small and mid-size machines are in Marbel, South Cotabato.

In fact, autoclaving is being done successfully in St. Paul’s hospitals, especially the ones on General Santos City and Tuguegarao.

Ferrer says that sometimes she cannot fathom the minds of government officials who, by virtue of their jobs, must try to know better. But don’t – or refuse to. For example, some engineers and scientists, who should be the first to appreciate the ban on incinerators, say they believe that burning is still the best option.

Is it ignorance, laziness or complicity? It is difficult to say which among these is the worst. Do they think they can just get away with it?

Then again, one can only criticize as much. Ferrer says that at the end of the day, she refuses to be defeated by her frustrations and disappointments, by the ugly things. One must still be an agent of change.

“This is why we always emphasize that there are alternatives.” In this case, the alternatives would be safe, economical, and supportive of local industries.

The issue is in no way as explosive or controversial as the ones we normally deal with in politics. But since it has the potential to affect the lives of millions – insidiously, and thus more dangerously – ensuring that the lofty goals of the Clean Air Act are translated into the decisions our local and national officials make remains of paramount, indeed burning, importance.

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