In Hampton, S.C., the big, green trash-burning plant abruptly turnedinto the neighbor nobody wanted.

An innocuous building with smokestacks poking through the roof became a potential killer, in the eyesof many, when it began burning syringes, bloody equipment, body parts and other medical waste along with its daily dose of trash.

Residents' fears reached the highest levels of government. State lawmakers adopted a measure last year halving the incinerator's 100-ton daily consumption of medical waste, a move the plant's operators immediately challenged in court.

In Susanville, Calif., the prospect of medical waste burning in the neighborhood turned a high school principal into a relentless activist. He collected 2,000 signatures ona petition, putting on hold plans for a incinerator until a study detailing its potential effect on the environment is completed.

In Milwaukee, residents alarmed about plans to burn medical waste spent countless hours poring over thousand of pages of documents. The new activists turned up flaws in the state's permit procedure that succeeded in holding up a planned incinerator.

Across America, medical waste incinerators like the $26 million facility completed last October just across the northeastern Anne Arundel border in Hawkins Point

have generated a host of protests and widespread fears of smokestacks belching chemicals.

While Consumat Systems Inc., the builder and operator of the Hawkins Point plant, is but one company developing the trash-to-energy plants, many opponents fear emissions from all such incinerators could cause cancer, respiratory diseases, hepatitis, even AIDS.

A decidedly different view of the medical waste burners comes from supporters, including incinerator operators and many local government officials. Fears feed on themselves, these supporters say, quickly developing into mass hysteria based more on rumors and unfounded claims than fact.

Supporters say the high-tech incinerators provide clean, safe alternatives to landfills and scattered smaller plants often subject to much less-restrictive regulations.

The debate likely will intensify as more state and local governments consider medical-waste incinerators.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency reports that more than 6,000 medical-waste incinerators operate nationwide and that at least 60 are built every year.

Naturally, more and more people will wonder whether these incinerators are safe neighbors or monsters that pollute the air and water and jeopardize residents' health.

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Government and independent studies and preliminary research, however, suggest it's too early to tell the precise health and environmental effects.

James Crowder, an industrial air pollution specialist at the EPA's Research Triangle, N.C., office, said both regulation and research on the incinerators remain "extremely preliminary."

"The bottom line is the jury's still out on these things when you're talking about a potential health threat," he said. "And it could be years before there's any sort of consensus or before that question is really answered conclusively."

Crowder said medical-waste incinerators fell under federal regulations as part of the Clean Air Act for the first time only last year. The EPA is still busy conducting field tests and other research in order to set guidelines on their emissions, he said.

Inamending the Clean Air Act, he said, Congress regulated only incinerators built after the law takes effect. The standards will be writtenby individual states in accordance with the federal guidelines, he said.

Specific "risk assessments" for medical-waste incinerators will be carried out over the next several years, under the amended legislation, Crowder said. Conclusive results on health risks could take seven to 10 years to develop.

"We realize that's not much solace to the people who live next to these things and wonder if they're being poisoned," he added. "We just can't answer that now."

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