For more than 20 years, Loyola University Medical Center in west suburban Maywood had relied on an incinerator to burn the four million pounds of medical waste it created annually. The incinerator kept that trash out of landfills and generated heat to warm the hospital buildings, thus reducing energy costs. “On-site incineration is a way to ensure that we’re not simply exporting our waste to someone else’s backyard,” says Anthony Barbato, president and CEO of the Loyola University Health System.

Despite these seeming benefits, medical waste incinerators have long been the target of grassroots environmental groups, who contend that the devices release harmful toxic materials into the air. At press time, there were six of them in the state-five at hospitals and a sixth, in Clinton, run by a medical waste disposal company. But with recent agreements, the two Chicago-area hospitals that still use incinerators-Loyola and Hinsdale Hospital-have plans in place to phase out their use by 2010.

These changes came about through a cooperative effort by environmental groups, governmental agencies-including the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA)-and, in some cases, the hospitals themselves. In 2004, a community group called NoBurn Evanston helped persuade Evanston’s city council to pass an ordinance prohibiting the burning of medical waste within city limits-following which, Evanston Northwestern Hospital stopped using its incinerator.

In September 2004, Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan sued Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, charging that the hospital’s incinerator had on two occasions released dioxin, a known human carcinogen, at levels 100 times the stringent state emission limits. Bowing to the pressure from Madigan’s suit and from the community, Gottlieb welded shut its incinerator’s doors.

Back in Maywood, Loyola spent months negotiating with the IEPA before signing an agreement in August 2005 to phase out use of its incinerator over five years’ time. Meanwhile, the IEPA has been working with Hinsdale Hospital, which earlier this year agreed to phase out use of its incinerator over the next five years. “The key is to get the waste to a facility away from populated areas,” says Doug Scott, the director of the IEPA. “Then it becomes a controllable land issue rather than an uncontrollable air issue.”