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The poisoned cocktail

Across Britain local communities are fighting plans to build new waste incinerators in their area. With the need to reduce the amount of waste that is dumped in holes in the ground – landfill – the waste industry and many local authorities see incinerators as an easy answer. BILL HOPWOOD, who was involved in a successful four-year struggle in Newcastle to stop an incinerator, reviews a recent government-funded report on incineration and health.

THE RELEASE IN May of the report, Review of Environment and Health Effects of Waste Management, gained significant news coverage. In an article in The Guardian (7 May 2004) the environment minister, Elliot Morley, used the report to justify his statement that "incinerating large quantities of household waste has no detrimental effect on human health". This statement is contrary to the evidence and the views of most of the public. Incineration is deeply unpopular.

Britain sends most of its household waste, 78%, to landfill. Landfilling mixed waste is bad for the environment and health. The organic matter decomposes to produce a quarter of Britain’s release of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, adding to climate change. Also the reactions in the landfill produce cancer causing gases and water contaminated with harmful and toxic chemicals. There is evidence of ill-health around mixed waste landfill sites. There is no disagreement from environmentalists or community activists that mixed waste landfill sites should stop.

The debate is what to do instead. The key change is to see that waste is full of valuable resources. Almost everything that is thrown away can be recycled or composted. Paper, glass, metals, plastics and textiles can be recycled. The organic matter – food and garden waste and some paper – can be composted to make clean soil. Recycling saves energy and raw materials and reduces pollution. Compost can restore soil quality which is declining across Europe. Farming is now an extractive industry destroying the soil with the nutrients and organic matter ending up in landfill sites or washed out to sea. Those who care about the future – environmentalists, community activists and socialists – want an end to our throwaway society with its one-way flow from raw materials to waste. Instead, we should reduce the waste produced and recover the resources through reusing, recycling and composting.

The waste treatment industry and many local authorities, under pressure from legislation and public opinion, accept they can no longer simply dump waste into the ground. However, they still see the issue as one of waste disposal rather than resource recovery. Being forced out of landfill they are looking for the next easy option. The industry also likes hi-tech solutions as there is more profit to be made. To them, incineration with its claim of gaining energy from waste is the answer. Incineration means they can continue to collect mixed waste and dispose of it. However they have been losing ground over the last few years with massive opposition to any new incinerator.

The report, paid for by the government, has to be understood as part of this debate around incineration. Morley claimed that incineration is better than landfilling mixed waste. But, whether the statement is true or not, landfilling mixed waste is not an option. The choice is not between landfill and incineration. It is between a policy of low levels of recycling with incineration, or high levels of recycling and compost with a small remainder of waste for treatment. The press and the minister ignored the report’s findings that, even with its weak methods, incinerators were only marginally better than landfill while other treatments such as composting, recycling and anaerobic digestion were much better than both.

The report, over 400 pages long, compares the health and environmental effects of different waste treatment processes. However, in spite of its length it is a weak document. It ignores the full life of products, so does not recognise the avoided damages to health and environment due to recycling or composting as compared to incineration. It makes somewhat questionable assumptions about the health impacts of different processes. The report was reviewed by members of the Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, and heavily criticised for its weaknesses. Even after amendments the Royal Society stated that "it is important that anyone using the data takes adequate consideration of its inherent uncertainty".

Health studies

THE MAIN WAYS of studying the health impacts of processes like incineration are either to estimate the amount of pollution and then the impact on health of this pollution – dose/response – or to carry out studies of the health of people around a plant – epidemiological studies.

Dose/burden studies are based on assumptions about the average person’s response to a typical dose. This ignores that some people, particularly the elderly and poor, are more at risk of ill-health. Also different people already have higher levels of pollutants in their bodies, depending on where they work and live as well as their own body’s reactions. ‘Average’ masks the varied vulnerability of individuals. Even more worryingly, children’s bodies do not respond to chemicals and toxins in the same way as adults. As they are growing and developing, their bodies are much more sensitive to tiny chemical changes which can have significant long-term impacts on development, intelligence and behaviour, and on the immune, reproductive and hormone systems.

Epidemiology can show that there is a statistical link between poor health and some factor, but alone it cannot prove that the factor caused ill health. There may be other unconsidered factors also at work. One of the longest fought over examples was the battle around the health impacts of smoking. Many studies showed that people who smoked were more likely to get cancer, but the studies alone were not proof. It took time to prove the link. There is clear evidence that people living near old incinerators and landfill sites have suffered poor health. What is debated is whether the incinerator or landfill is the cause. One suggested alternative, which excuses waste handling, is that as landfill sites and incinerators tend to be located in neighbourhoods of poor people, then poverty is the cause.

Epidemiological studies rely on the passage of time so that what are often small variations in health accumulate to a level that is clearly measurable. The report states that they did not find a link between the current generation of municipal solid waste incinerators and health effects. This is no surprise as these have only been operating a few years which is not long enough to produce any noticeable effects. There is well documented evidence of older incinerators harming health.

A reasonable view would be that incinerators and landfill sites release harmful chemicals and that as there is some evidence of harm from these releases then action should lean towards caution. This is known as the precautionary principle.

Health justice requires that precautionary action is based on protecting the vulnerable rather than some notional ‘average’. Yet in a cruel twist, incinerators and landfills are usually located in poor communities, with a high number of vulnerable people. These people should not have a double burden of health risk. If incinerators are safe, why are they mainly placed in poor communities?

A further complication in understanding the health impacts of incinerators is that they release a cocktail of many chemicals, well over 100 volatile organic chemicals alone. We know that some of these are harmful to health, but there is little or no research on the combined harm of these chemicals, the cocktail effect. The release of many of these chemicals from incinerators is not even measured.

The report ignores completely the production of ultrafine particles – no mention in 420 pages! The harmful health effects of particles of around 10-2.5 microns has been established, but there is a growing awareness that the very small ones are even more harmful. Ultrafine particles are particles with a diameter of less than 01.micron. That is one ten thousandth of a millimetre or one millionth of four inches. Very, very small!

Ultrafines are mainly a product of high temperature burning, such as incinerators and car engines. Materials, that as larger particles are harmless, at the size of ultrafines can be toxic. These tiny particles can pass into the deepest parts of the lungs where the air is exchanged with the blood system. Human bodies have no natural barriers to ultrafine particles, as in our evolution we did not encounter such small particles. They are so small they can pass from the lungs into the blood stream and then into the body’s organs or a foetus. They can pass directly through the cell walls into the brain. They are linked to lung cancer, coronary heart disease and strokes. At present there is no legislation on the release of ultrafine particles, their releases are not monitored and filters on incinerators do not capture them.

There is clear evidence of negative health impacts from older incinerators. In a major study, the US National Research Council Committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration pointed to health problems and the need for more research, yet this study is not even referred to. The report does refer to a study by Farmer and Hjerp, 2001, which gained news coverage as it argued that incinerators made only a very low contribution to pollution and have little or no health effects. However, it was criticised for its weaknesses including a lack of a thorough review of information, inaccuracies and factual errors, and ignoring the precautionary principle, uncertainty and the likelihood of failures in the incinerator process. This critique is ignored. A recent study in Cumbria found negative health impacts around incinerators. A recent study in France found "for the total of congenital malformations and the large categories of minor and non-genetic malformations, a significant difference in incidence is observed with a greater risk for the population exposed after the start of the incinerators than before".

Dubious assumptions

THE REPORT MAKES a number of other dubious assumptions in building up its case that incinerators are safe. The high temperature reactions in incinerators inevitably produce a host of harmful chemicals. The safety of incineration relies on the total effectiveness of the operator and all the many controls. Yet, as we all know, machinery breaks down and companies cut corners. Incinerators regularly breach their license with fires, burst filters and other failures. The report however, while acknowledging some failures, dismisses these: "Emissions above consented limits are not a significant issue for waste incinerators. Also, an exceedance over a short period is not likely to have a significant effect on emissions averaged over a long period such as a year". (p71) Again the report hides behind a false ‘average’ concept.

Even if the filters work safely, the harmful chemicals are not destroyed. They are captured as ‘fly ash’ in the filters that are then disposed to landfill. The chemicals still escape into the environment, only on a slower path via water, soil and air. The report largely ignores releases to soil and water and assumes that landfill sites do not leak harmful chemicals.

One of the most worrying failures was the deliberate spreading of 2,000 tonnes of toxic ash contaminated with ‘fly ash’ from the Byker incinerator on footpaths and allotments. This resulted in soil with "massive contamination with dioxins". Yet all the report says about this scandal is: "A widely reported incident arose during which ash from the Byker incinerator in Newcastle was re-used on footpaths, including those at nearby allotments. In this case, the releases directly to land were greater than would normally occur. This has been investigated by the Environment Agency and Newcastle city council". (p78) To describe spreading toxic ash as ‘re-use’ shows a strange use of the English language. The character of the entire report is revealed in this utterly complacent paragraph.

In deciding whether to use incineration or not, the wider environmental and health issues are as important as the direct impacts. Incineration destroys valuable resources. The one claimed benefit is the production of energy. However, recycling saves three to five times as much energy as is generated from incineration. Incinerators are expensive and rely on risky technology. The same money used for recycling and compost saves resources, protects the environment and provides jobs. As Paul Connett put it, if incineration is the answer we are asking the wrong questions.

In Newcastle, we had to battle against scientists and experts like the authors of this report who select the evidence that suits their case. It is one of the tragedies of science that too often it is used selectively – such as in the debates over genetic engineering – to back the needs of big business. However, BAN Waste was able to win because we were determined, gained wide public support and produced strong evidence and alternative policies that showed Newcastle did not need an incinerator.

Undoubtedly, this report will be used by the pro-incineration lobby of business, some councils and some in the government. For example, the strangely named, National Society for Clean Air, which produced a pro-incineration report a couple of years ago, said: "We hope the report will put an end to scaremongering over the health impacts of facilities like incineration".

It is unlikely that this weak and one-sided report will end the real concerns about incineration. The evidence is too well known to be avoided. The battle against incineration and for waste minimisation and resource recovery will continue.



Review of Environment and Health Effects of Waste Management (full report)

Review of Environment and Health Effects of Waste Management (Summary)

BAN Waste: Too Good to Waste

Other Reports at:

Paul Connett’s critique of incinerating waste


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