Mindy Grover, her first-grade daughter and dozens of other parents and children were running in Foxboro Elementary's 5K race last Friday evening in North Salt Lake, Utah, when thick plumes of black smoke clouded the course.
"We were just coming down the street and there was this huge thing of smoke. It was probably not the best stuff to breathe in," recalled Grover, who said she also pushed her baby in a stroller during the fun run while her 3-year-old son rode his bike alongside. "There were flames, too. It looked like someone's house was on fire."
The origin of the smoke and flames was a medical waste incinerator that is now the center of a heated local battle -- and emblematic of a rising global health issue.
Smoke rises from Stericycle's emergency bypass stack last Friday evening. (Alicia Connell)
For more than 20 years, Stericycle, an Illinois-based disposal service company, has burned everything from body parts and bloody bandages to chemotherapy drugs and plastic tubes at the North Salt Lake facility, releasing a daily mix of toxic chemicals.
Meanwhile, a young neighborhood grew up around it. Five schools are now located within a 1-mile radius of the Stericycle facility, with another school currently under construction.
"The situation in North Salt Lake is particularly outrageous and part of a broader challenge of medical waste treatment," said Bradley Angel of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a grassroots organization based in San Francisco. "You cannot safely burn medical waste. You cannot completely destroy it and its unavoidable byproducts are some of most highly toxic and dangerous products known to science."
Angel said alternatives to incineration exist, and over the last 15 years about 98 percent of medical waste incinerators in the U.S. have closed down. Some of the displaced waste is now sent to sterilizing autoclaves, which many experts attest offer a safer technology, despite their own drawbacks.
But a large portion of the nation's ever-growing hospital waste is simply trucked to the dozens of remaining incinerators, such as the one in North Salt Lake. At least one new U.S. facility is also currently in the works in Western Suwannee County, Fla., much to the chagrin of some local residents who worry of, among other things, further mercury contamination to local fish.
At the same time, the industrialized world's old incineration equipment is finding a new life in the developing world to dispose of growing volumes of medical waste.
Local North Salt Lake parents interviewed by The Huffington Post expressed how little they knew of Stericycle's operation when they moved into the neighborhood. They said they weren't aware, for example, that medical waste incinerators are among the world's leading emitters of dioxins, mercury, lead and other chemicals that are known to be particularly toxic to children and pregnant women.
What's more, when an incinerator starts up, shuts down or malfunctions, as Stericycle's did on Friday, extra large quantities of fine particulates and chemicals are spewed into the air.
"We were told that there might be lights and noises and trucks coming in and out, but that was extent of it," said Alicia Connell, a local mother of three who moved into the neighborhood in 2004. "I didn't know I should be researching it further."
Connell is finally doing that research, and has helped launch a community websitethat includes her latest findings, alongside a petition to close the incinerator. She has posted documents concerning a notice of violation issued in May by the Utah Division of Air Quality to the company for falsifying records and emitting more toxic chemicals than its permit allowed, including more than four times the authorized amount of dioxin emissions.
Multiple calls by The Huffington Post to Stericycle remain unreturned.
A recent spate of incinerator malfunctions -- Connell's website counted at least seven in July alone -- has boosted opposition to Stericycle throughout the community. Numerous meetings and actions have been held, including a protest on Wednesday afternoon in front of the Utah state capitol building, where about 100 pediatricians, mothers, children and residents called on Gov. Gary Herbert (R) to shut down the incinerator.
Stericycle protestors gathered at the rotunda of the Utah state capitol building on Wednesday afternoon. (Cherise Udell)
Some held signs that read "Our Babies Deserve Better," and "Stericycle -- Mercury, Dioxins, Pathogens -- Served Hot Daily."
Rumor has it that Stericycle may be looking for a new Utah location to operate, but Connell said a relocation still wouldn't meet the community's goal. "We're not gonna send our problem to someone else," she told HuffPost after Wednesday's protest.
So far, at least Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler (R-23) appears to be responding to the concerns of his constituents. He told The Huffington Post on Tuesday that he plans to introduce a state bill that would "seek to ban the incineration of medical waste" in Utah. "This is really an unacceptable situation right now," he said.
Area doctors, too, have joined the opposition and offered their expertise on just what health risks may be carried by Stericycle's smoke, which area residents could only describe to HuffPost as "putrid" and "gross."
"The incineration process creates new toxic compounds such as dioxins and furans that weren't there to begin with," explained Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
Dioxins, the notorious components of Agent Orange, have been associated with a host of health issues including cancers, hormone disruptions and reproductive problems.
"In the case of heavy metals such as mercury, they are not combustible, do not degrade and cannot be destroyed," Moench said. One incinerator, he added, can emit as much volume of the neurotoxic elements as a full-sized coal-fired power plant.
And emissions from incinerators are not just a concern for those living nearby. The pollution is known to travel hundreds of miles, as well as to accumulate in waterways and food supplies.
"There is no such thing as a safe level of exposure to many of these highly toxic substances, especially for a pregnant mother, despite Stericycle's permit to release them," Dr. Tyler Yeates, a Salt Lake City physician, told a gathering at a North Salt Lake town hall meeting in July.
Yeates explained that carcinogens are far more dangerous when combined than in isolation. "When a supposedly tolerable exposure to mercury is combined with a tolerable exposure to dioxins, to cadmium, lead and arsenic," he said, "the end result can be an intolerable health consequence."
The situation in North Salt Lake is then especially concerning given the array of pollutants from other nearby sources, including five oil refineries.
Connell described what seemed to her as an unusually large number of people with various illnesses and reproductive troubles in her neighborhood, and said her kids had all suffered breathing issues. "Utah air quality is horrible," she said. "Knowing whether one instance is due to Stericycle or the refineries, I can't say for sure."
One state official who regulates Stericycle's facility expressed less concern about potential health hazards.
"I'm not necessarily as upset as the residents might be," Harold Burge, the major source compliance section manager for the Utah Division of Air Quality, told HuffPost. "At this point in time, I'm not seeing anything that would indicate an immediate threat to anyone in the neighborhood."
Still, he hopes his division and Stericycle will reach a settlement over the company's notice of violation resulting in tighter pollution controls.
Local community members, however, remain hopeful for more -- ideally, a complete shutdown of the incinerator.
Mindy Grover's husband, Jim, was in a nearby parking lot during last Friday's 5K race.
"Stericycle possibly put toxic pollutants into an area where a group of parents and kids were running for health," he said. "For that company, it was the wrong place and the wrong time."