The supporters of incineration argue that the health effects of modern incinerators are negligible because they are regulated by the Waste Incineration Directive (WID), and the emission limits (see Annex V of Waste Incineration Directive) are tightly controlled by the Directive. Supporters of incineration in government also claim that the UK’s Royal Society has given incineration a clean bill of health.
The reality is very different. The Royal Society actually has profound reservations, and it should be noted that the WID emission limits only control the rate at which atmospheric pollutants are emitted and not the total volume. Also, many pollutants are not monitored and measured (see Table 1, pages 1256-58).
The medical evidence that atmospheric emissions can and do damage health is considerable and has been documented by the British Society for Ecological Medicine. A key factor is the dust and soot emissions, known as particulate matter (PM). These particles are measured in microns (1 micron = 1 millionth of a metre) and particles become more toxic as their size decreases. For example, particles measuring 2.5 microns or less enter deep into the lung and particles measuring 0.1 micron (known as ultrafine particles) enter readily into the blood vessels of the lung. If these particles have toxic materials attached to them (see Annex V of WID) then the toxicity of the particles is intensified. Particles absorbed into the lung are linked to pulmonary and cardiovascular disease, see article by Montague and BSEM.
The breathing of small and ultrafine particles (2.5 microns and below) has effects upon the health of populations which is revealed by epidemiological studies. Also, ultrafine particles contribute very little to the total mass (weight) of particle emissions from an incinerator, but they seem to contribute disproportionately to its toxicity. Therefore the control of mass (weight) concentrations by filters will have little effect in reducing adverse health impacts unless these filters also capture ultrafine particles, see source.
It has been noted (Howard C. V. The University of Ulster,The health impacts of incineration, with particular reference to the toxicological effects of ultrafine particle aerosols, organo-chlorines and other emissions. Proof of Evidence submitted to East Sussex and Brighton and Hove Local Plan Public Inquiry, 2003) that incinerator emissions trapped in filter bags vary in their efficiency. Howard cites information supplied by Veolia, a multi-national waste management company “. . . baghouse filter collection efficiency was 95-99% for PM10s, 65-70% for PM2.5s, and only 5-30% for particles smaller than 2.5 microns, even before the filters become coated with lime and activated carbon.”
Vyvyan Howard’s Statement of Evidence to the Ringaskiddy incinerator inquiry in Ireland, dated June 2009, explains that the ultrafine particulates from incinerators are particularly dangerous because they carry a range of toxins including dioxins, PCBs and metals (see Prof. Howard’s report).
There is a vast literature concerning the health effects of airborne particulate matter, see example and a recent study, Aboh et al, 2007 has looked a medium sized city in south-western Sweden and identified that their new modern incinerator as the single most significant source of PM2.5s.
It should also be noted that health concerns are accepted as a “material planning consideration”. The Defra website states the following “Public concern is a material planning consideration and has in part led to previous applications [for waste incinerators] being refused (e.g. Kidderminster). Public concern founded upon valid planning reasons can be taken into account when considering a planning application”, see page 25.
Additional Sources of Information:
Montague. P, The Deadliest Air Pollution Isnt Being Regulated or Even Measured, published in Rachel’s Democracy and Health News #915, July 2007, http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/ht070712.htm
Waste Incineration Directive 2000/76/EC, http://www.wbcsd.org/web/projects/cement/tf2/2000-76_en.pdf
Defra’s report titled: Review of the environmental and health impacts of waste management : municipal solid waste and similar wastes , published May 2004, with the Royal Society’s review, Part I, November 2003, and Part II, March 2004, http://www.defra.gov.uk/publications/2011/03/26/health-report-pb9052a/
British Society for Ecological Medicine, The Health Effects of waste incinerators, editors Dr. J. Thompson and Dr. H. M. Anthony, first published December 2005 and revised June 2008, http://www.ecomed.org.uk/pub_waste.php