Fact Sheet 4: Health Risks

Modern, well-run incinerators are said to be “safe”. But what is meant by “safe”? Are the risks acceptable to the people who are affected?

There is a real problem in answering these questions. On the one hand there is a lot of evidence from overseas (and some in the UK) that identifies health risks and the extent of excess deaths and morbidity. On the other, UK bodies such as the Environment Agency and the Health Protection Agency say that “Modern, well managed waste incinerators will only make a very small contribution background level of air pollution” and “provided they comply with modern regulatory requirements, such as the Waste Incineration Directive, they should contribute little to the contribution of monitored pollutants in ambient air”

We can agree that modern pollution control equipment removes much more of the harmful pollutants than with earlier generations of incinerators. However, no system is 100% efficient and some of the pollutants will get into the air we breathe. Many of these pollutants, like heavy metals and fat-soluble organic compounds, accumulate in our bodies and the bodies of the animals we eat. Thus instantaneous levels of pollutants in ambient air is not the whole story. Moreover, not everything is monitored.

Pollutants accumulate when their rate of discharge into the environment exceeds the ability of the ecosystems to break them down (and many do not break down for centuries). Communities around an incinerator will be specifically vulnerable to emissions which never or only very slowly decay and remain in the local environment and food chain.

Some of these pollutants are carcinogenic and epidemiological studies from many countries have linked incinerators with excess cases of cancer. Some are mutagenic and/or able to deform the unborn child. Some disrupt the body’s endocrine system, potentially causing a range of health problems. The smallest particulates (nano-particles) are small enough to enter the sensitive lung tissue and damage it, yet these particles are not separately monitored. These particles have been repeatedly correlated spatially to infant mortality. Emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) lead to compounds that may cause or worsen respiratory diseases such as emphysema, bronchitis and/or aggravate existing heart disease.

The difficulty lies in the fact that while the causal pathways are known, the dose-response relationship at small doses is not known. The effects of bio-accumulation in adults is not well defined, though it is clear that they can pass from the mother to her child, including during pregnancy. Also, the effects of the bio-accumulative pollutants entering the human food chain may not be well understood. Thus one is talking about risk and judgements may legitimately vary.

The Vulnerable Groups. Risks are not the same for all individuals; indeed they vary greatly. Thus:

  • The Foetus (unborn child) is uniquely susceptible to toxic damage and early exposures can have life changing consequences and increases in congenital abnormalities have been found around incinerators.
  • Children face a higher health risk from incinerator emissions than adults because of their faster metabolism and because their developing tissues are more affected by a given pollutant load than the “static” tissues of adults.
  • Chemically Sensitive individuals who react to chemicals and pollutants at several orders of magnitude below that normally thought to be toxic.

Do you really want to impose these health risks on your fellow citizens? Would it not be better to apply the precautionary principle and choose a safer alternative such as MBT/AD?

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