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Health issues connected with incinerators

This is legacy content from before the 2019 website relaunch and might not be up-to-date. Use the main navigation to find the latest information.

Health impacts arising from waste incineration is a contentious subject for many reasons (complexity, uncertainty, vested interests, the nature of the ‘scientific method’, difficulties ‘proving’ causal relationships, ‘confounding factors’ including other sources of pollution, etc.).

UKWIN will continue to endeavour to provide a range of authoritative perspectives and critical assessments of official statements regarding health impacts of incineration in a responsible manner.

If you are aware of any information not already included in this section of the UKWIN website, please contact the Network Coordinator by sending an e-mail message to

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Filters, particulates and deaths from emissions to air

Some waste incinerator emissions are trapped in filter bags, however the smallest particles (known as ‘PMs’ for ‘particulate matter’) are not. Information from a multi-national waste management company (Veolia) shows that “…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 [read more]

And sometimes these filter bags tear. The Sunday Herald (Scotland) discovered a major incident on 19 June 2001 which will lead to Dundee Energy Recycling Limited filing a formal report with Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). “A spokesman for SEPA said that a lot of black dust had poured from the incinerator for an hour after filter bags suddenly burst. The pollution emission dials went off-scale, so there were no readings for the amounts that were discharged. The incinerator was shut down and the operators are trying to find out why the filter bags, which were new, had failed”

Unmonitored emissions

Not all emissions from waste incinerators are monitored or measured in any way. A list of some of these is available from []. Even monitored emissions are not always continuously checked, and this can result in underestimates.

Spot monitoring, unlike continuous monitoring, only measures pollutant emissions at occasional intervals. For example, spot monitoring in this context may involve monitoring emissions just twice per year (once every 6 months). [Read more]

A Belgian study showed that spot measurements do not give a representative indication of the actual emissions over a period [De Fré, R. and Wevers, M. Organohalogen Compounds. 36, 17-20 (1998)].Continuous monitoring over a period showed that actual emissions could be 30 to 50 times higher than those recorded by spot measurements. [Read more]

Unpunished breaches

Case study: Eastcroft, Nottingham
Waste Recycling Group (WRG), owners of Nottingham’s Eastcroft incinerator have received a series of warnings from the Environment Agency (EA). The repeated warnings culminated in The EA writing to the Company Secretary of WRG alleging that the owners have committed pollution offences. The EA claim an offence has been committed because WRG failed to file valid monitoring data for toxic heavy metals (including cadmium, thallium, mercury), particulates, PCBs.

This was in addition to 6 pollution breaches in the 6 months between September 2007 and February 2008, including:

  • ‘abnormal emissions’ caused by an explosion of a gas canister, causing a breach of carbon monoxide limits;
  • a breach of hydrogen fluoride limits – presumably also caused by suspicious waste being accepted;
  • a boiler tube failure, causing breach of carbon monoxide limits;
  • excess carbon in the bottom ash, indicating inadequate combustion; and
  • a ‘filter bypass’ operation in which fly ash has been sprayed over the surrounding area for 5 minutes

and numerous other historic breaches listed on the Nottingham Against Incineration and Landfill (NAIL) website at:

The current regulatory process does not provide rigorous monitoring of dioxins and metals and the regulatory process does not provide rigorous enforcement. [Read more]

Unrealistic ‘worst case’ scenarios

On the 10th March 2005, Nottingham’s Eastcroft incinerator breached its dioxin limits. The spot measurement showed that emissions during the sampling period were 9 times higher than the emissions limit. Critically, given that dioxins are usually only measured every six months, the question arises were emissions 9 times higher over the entire six months? This could lead to the assumption that over the year dioxin emissions were much higher than the emissions limit.

A study showed that spot measurements do not give a representative indication of the actual emissions over a period [De Fré and Wevers, 1998]. Continuous monitoring over a period showed that actual emissions could be 30 to 50 times higher than spot measurements. Combining the two observations for a worst case scenario, the actual emissions could have been 450 (9 x 50) times higher than the emissions limit, over a six month period.

Given the toxicity and persistence of dioxins in the environment, this raises serious questions about the level of rigour applied to monitoring and enforcement [].
[Read more]


Incineration, even when it produces energy, burns resources and harms health. Of the health hazards, ultrafine particles are still to be examined – a factsheet available from Health Care Without Harm presents reasons for doing so.

And more on health impacts of nanoparticles can be found at

Precautionary approach
Remember: Dioxins are not present in the waste, they are created by the burning process!
More coming soon…

Latest Studies

García-Pérez, J., et al. (2013). “Cancer mortality in towns in the vicinity of incinerators and installations for the recovery or disposal of hazardous waste.” Environment International 51(0): 31-44  is to be in the January 2013 edition of Environment International and includes most of the incinerators in Spain:

“Excess cancer mortality (BYM model: relative risk, 95% credible interval) was detected in the total population residing in the vicinity of these installations as a whole (1.06, 1.04–1.09), and, principally, in the vicinity of incinerators (1.09, 1.01–1.18)”.

And (in the full paper):

“The results reported in our study show excess risks for all cancers combined and for lung cancer, and in particular, marked increases in risk of tumors of the pleura and gallbladder (men) and stomach (women)”.

Background Waste treatment plants release toxic emissions into the environment which affect neighboring towns. Objectives To investigate whether there might be excess cancer mortality in towns situated in the vicinity of Spanish-based incinerators and installations for the recovery or disposal of hazardous waste, according to the different categories of industrial activity. Methods An ecologic study was designed to examine municipal mortality due to 33 types of cancer, across the period 1997–2006. Population exposure to pollution was estimated on the basis of distance from town of residence to pollution source.

Using Besag–York–Mollié (BYM) regression models with Integrated Nested Laplace approximations for Bayesian inference, and Mixed Poisson regression models, we assessed the risk of dying from cancer in a 5-kilometer zone around installations, analyzed the effect of category of industrial activity, and conducted individual analyses within a 50-kilometer radius of each installation. Results Excess cancer mortality (BYM model: relative risk, 95% credible interval) was detected in the total population residing in the vicinity of these installations as a whole (1.06, 1.04–1.09), and, principally, in the vicinity of incinerators (1.09, 1.01–1.18) and scrap metal/end-of-life vehicle handling facilities, in particular (1.04, 1.00–1.09). Special mention should be made of the results for tumors of the pleura (1.71, 1.34–2.14), stomach (1.18, 1.10–1.27), liver (1.18, 1.06–1.30), kidney (1.14, 1.04–1.23), ovary (1.14, 1.05–1.23), lung (1.10, 1.05–1.15), leukemia (1.10, 1.03–1.17), colon–rectum (1.08, 1.03–1.13) and bladder (1.08, 1.01–1.16) in the vicinity of all such installations. Conclusions Our results support the hypothesis of a statistically significant increase in the risk of dying from cancer in towns near incinerators and installations for the recovery or disposal of hazardous waste.”

According to the World Health Organisation Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution – REVIHAAP Project Technical Report: “The adverse effects on health of particulate matter (PM) are especially well documented. There is no evidence of a safe level of exposure or a threshold below which no adverse health effects occur.”

According to Waste incineration and adverse birth and neonatal outcomes: a systematic review (Ashworth DC, Elliott P, Toledano MB., 2014): “…we identified a number of higher quality studies reporting significant positive relationships with broad groups of congenital anomalies, warranting further investigation. Future studies should address the identified limitations in order to help improve our understanding of any potential adverse birth outcomes associated with incineration, particularly focussing on broad groups of anomalies, to inform risk assessment and waste policy.”

According to Vicaretti, M, S Mosca, E Guerriero, and M Rotatori. 2012. Long-term automated sampling of PCDD/PCDF flue gas: Current status and critical issues. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int 19 (6): 1896-907 high levels of emissions are emitted during start-up and close-down, during which the normal emission limits do not apply: “…the results of this work demonstrate, according to the results of several studies carried out on incinerator plants during transient operating combustion as start up and shut-down, that emission levels detected in a long period sampling campaigns (15–30 days) cannot be comparable to the typical levels sampled in a 6-8 h period, when conditions of the plant are generally stable, since the operator can optimize the performance of his incinerator for the 8 h sampling campaign by, e.g., using optimized waste composition and the optimum waste load.”

Links to other pages in this sub-section

Enviros study and its limitations
EA policy statement on incineration critiqued
Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and the Health Protection Agency (HPA)
Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP)
Dioxins and other harmful incinerator emissions
Toxic ash
Horror stories (Byker)
European dimension
Global dimension
People who have voiced health concerns about incinerators
Non-human health issues (animals, habitats, soil, water, etc.)
Other sources of information