The American Hospital Association is poised to challenge proposed federal emissions regulations that it contends would cost the industry more than $1 billion.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 80% of the nation's hospital-based incinerators would be shut down under the proposed regulations.
The EPA says medical-waste incinerators are the largest source of dioxin, followed closely by municipal incinerators, and should be closed or upgraded. The agency's draft regulations, mandated under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, are expected to be released in late October or early November.
The regulations are subject to a public comment period and review before a final version is enacted by April 15, 1996.
The regulations would force most hospitals to abandon their incinerators in favor of alternative technologies such as autoclaves or large commercial incinerators with good environmental controls. More than half of hospitals nationwide use their own incinerators, according to the AHA.
The AHA, in a report written by Doucet & Mainka Environmental Consultants and Engineers of Peekskill, N.Y., calls the proposed regulations "overly restrictive, unnecessarily costly and excessively burdensome," and without significant environmental benefit.
The report says bringing incinerators into compliance would cost the industry more than $1 billion, plus higher annual costs of more than $200 million. It could cost anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million to bring an incinerator into compliance, said Richard Wade, AHA's senior vice president for communications.
"The proposed emission limits would effectively eliminate on-site incineration as a viable, cost-effective medical-waste treatment alternative for most hospitals," the AHA report says. Alternatives such as steam autoclaves, and microwave and chemical systems aren't ready for widespread use, it says.
The EPA says there are alternatives. Autoclaves and microwaves are being used effectively in some places, said Richard Copland, an environmental engineer who is in charge of developing the regulations. Commercial haulers claim they can handle all medical waste, in some cases for less money than hospitals pay to burn it, he said.
The AHA counters that commercial haulers would not necessarily be cheaper or safer. "If incinerators shut down you're going to see massive increases in the cost of hauling," Mr. Wade said.
The AHA is also wary of an EPA report on dioxin to be released the week of Sept. 12. The EPA has long contended that dioxin particles, which fall to earth and travel through the food chain, cause cancer. But a leaked version of the EPA report adds fetal development and immune system problems to the list of hazards.
The EPA said hospitals are the largest known dioxin producer, but the AHA said unknown sources produce 80%. An EPA spokeswoman said it's "more like 50%."
The AHA said it will assemble two expert panels of hospital representatives, scientists and consultants to review the draft regulations and the dioxin study.