President Joe Biden in his recent visit to Texas vowed to investigate a potential link between exposure to toxic substances from burn pits and the incidence of certain cancers among US service personnel. This is a laudable effort and long over-due. For decades scientists have known that burning of fossil fuels, plastics, and chemicals leads to the emission of harmful and toxic chemicals into the environment. Indeed, this knowledge led to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) which was adopted in May 2001 and has now been ratified by 184 countries, including the US, making it near universal in its geographical coverage.
The Stockholm Convention lists the actions and policies needed to prevent the production and release of POP and advocates for the use of non-burn technologies to dispose of waste streams. Within healthcare systems the treatment of medical waste has historically involved incineration. Incinerators emit toxic POP (dioxins and furans) which are known to lead to health issues including an increase in cancers. Several non-burn destruction technologies exist including autoclaves and microwaves.
If we are to address the health and climate challenges from burning of waste, we need to consider all forms of incineration and work towards adoption of safer technologies to protect our communities, populations, and the environment.