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Health, Science, Environment

It’s now illegal in Illinois to incinerate toxic chemicals known to cause cancer

An environmental activists holds a kites with a messages supporting a ban on PFAS incineration in front of industrial complexes in Sauget on April 22, 2021. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law on Wednesday that bans the incineration of these kinds of chemicals.
Eric Schmid
/
St. Louis Public Radio
An environmental activists holds a kites with a messages supporting a ban on PFAS incineration in front of industrial complexes in Sauget on April 22, 2021. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law on Wednesday that bans the incineration of these kinds of chemicals.

A new Illinois law signed Wednesday made it illegal to incinerate a class of toxic chemicals known to cause cancer and other health problems.

Metro East lawmakers and environmental advocates raised concerns last year about burning PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, after the U.S. Department of Defense authorized a Sauget incinerator to dispose of the man-made chemicals.

The defense department has an interest in figuring out how to dispose of PFAS because they are a main ingredient in firefighting foam, which is used in particular at military installments such as Scott Air Force Base. The chemicals are more effective in putting out aviation and fuel fires than water. They’re also common in consumer products such as nonstick pans, waterproof clothes, microwave popcorn bags, fast food wrappers and stain-resistant carpets.

But they’re toxic. Decades of research connects PFAS to thyroid disease, low birth weight, reduced responsiveness to vaccines, increased cholesterol, liver damage, kidney cancer and testicular cancer.

The chemicals remain mostly unregulated throughout the United States.

The exact effects of inhaling air contaminated with PFAS is not yet known, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. But scientists know people can be exposed in a variety of ways, and exposure at certain levels comes with health risks. Some people are more at risk of PFAS exposure, including people who live near facilities that produce PFAS.

As research continues about the effects of inhaling incinerated PFAS, lawmakers said they wanted to take steps to ban burning it. State Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Swansea, and state Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, sponsored the legislation (HB 4818).

“This initiative stems from concerns that our neighbors have surrounding the waste incinerator in Sauget, which puts Metro East residents at risk of exposure to these harmful substances,” Belt said in a prepared statement.

Veolia Environmental Services operates the incinerator in Sauget. A spokesperson for the company told St. Louis Public Radio they do not accept material they know has PFAS in it. The company noted many products contain PFAS and they can’t ensure none of the chemicals are incinerated.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker vetoed a similar bill last year because it would have affected pollution-control methods that involve PFAS, the governor wrote in a letter.

Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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