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The Physicians Committee

Covance Animal Incinerator Could Pose Risks to Chandler Residents

By Aysha Akhtar, M.D., M.P.H.
November 29, 2006

This opinion piece was published Nov. 29, 2006, in the Chandler Independent.

Chandler residents could soon face a disturbing new source of air pollution: Covance Laboratories is seeking a permit from the Maricopa County Air Quality Department to operate an incinerator to dispose of thousands of dead animals used to test toxic substances.

As a physician and public health specialist, I know that emissions from Covance’s planned animal-carcass incinerator could pose a risk to the health of people in Chandler—and all across Maricopa County.

So far, the controversy over Covance’s proposal to build a huge new animal experimentation facility near the Chandler Airport has largely focused on the company’s disturbing history of cruelty to animals. Covance, a contract-testing company that tests cosmetics ingredients, pesticides, and drugs on animals, has been fined by the federal government for abusing primates and other violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

But the revelation that Covance is moving ahead with plans for an incinerator raises urgent new concerns. Studies of people living near incinerators indicate that incinerators are associated with numerous health problems, especially in children and other vulnerable populations. These problems include nerve damage, birth defects, brain damage, respiratory and cardiovascular ailments, and cancers.

Currently, there are no incinerators in Chandler. While Maricopa County has multiple crematories, none are used to incinerate medical wastes. A Covance incinerator in Chandler will be the first, and it will likely differ from other Maricopa County incinerators in two important ways.

First, the Covance incinerator is expected to burn much larger volumes of animal carcasses than the existing crematories, perhaps in addition to other associated medical wastes. By some estimates, Covance is expected to house at least 240,000 animals each year in the proposed Chandler laboratory.

Because the large-scale burning of animal carcasses from laboratories is a relatively recent phenomenon, there are few studies on these types of incinerators. However, existing studies suggest that there are hazards unique to animal carcass incinerators. For example, they may be more likely to emit polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and certain heavy metals such as lead, zinc, and iron than other types of incinerators.

Covance’s incinerator in Madison, Wis., which burns many animal carcasses, was found to be a significant source of numerous toxic substances, including heavy metals such as mercury and one of the most toxic man-made chemicals, a dioxin named 2,3,7,8- Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin.

Second, a Covance incinerator will likely burn animal carcasses containing concentrated levels of industrial chemicals, insecticides, pesticides, and experimental drugs. The public health impact of incinerating such chemically laden carcasses is largely unexplored. However, it is likely that at least some of these chemicals will be emitted into the atmosphere over Chandler, with unpredictable consequences.

We do know that a recent review of 46 scientific studies of populations residing near or working at incinerators in the United States, Europe, and Japan reported significant associations between cancer development and exposure to incinerators in two-thirds of the studies.

Won’t environmental laws protect Chandler? Unfortunately, air-quality regulations at all levels of government do not offer enough protection, in part because regulations typically lag behind scientific research and fail to cover some dangerous pollutants. Only certain chemicals have emission limits; others can be released without any monitoring at all. Also, many chemicals emitted by incinerators are toxic at extremely low levels—even at parts per trillion—and their harmful effects are noted only after years of chronic exposure.

An incinerator in Chandler poses special concerns because the Phoenix area is a valley that is geographically predisposed to trapping pollutants and keeping them there, rather than dispersing them. There are already numerous pollution “health hazard advisories” announced in the area. Each additional pollution source will make further advisories more likely.

While scientific research on the health effects of incinerators continues, one fact is crystal clear: Chandler residents deserve clean air. To protect that right, they must express their concerns about Covance to the mayor and the Chandler City Council. If these officials do not take action, the people of Chandler may soon find themselves living next door to an incinerator that could pollute the air they breathe for decades to come.

For more information on the potential health hazards of incinerators, please read our report online at

Aysha Akhtar, M.D., M.P.H., is a neurologist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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