The Health Effects of Waste Incinerators

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Large studies have shown higher rates of adult and childhood cancer and also birth defects around municipal waste incinerators. Incinerator emissions are a major source of fine particulates, of toxic metals and of more than 200 organic chemicals, including known carcinogens, mutagens, and hormone disrupters. Present safety measures are designed to avoid acute toxic effects in the immediate neighbourhood, but ignore the fact that many of the pollutants bioaccumulate, can enter the food chain and can cause chronic illnesses over time and over a much wider geographical area. Incinerators produce bottom and fly ash which represent 30-50% by volume of the original waste (if compacted), requiring transportation to landfill sites. Abatement equipment in modern incinerators merely transfers the toxic load, notably that of dioxins and heavy metals, from airborne emissions to the fly ash. Two large cohort studies in America have shown that fine (PM2.5) particulate air pollution causes increases in all-cause mortality, cardiac mortality and mortality from lung cancer, after adjustment for other factors. Ischaemic heart disease was responsible for nearly a quarter of deaths in one of the cohort studies and was strongly related to the level of PM2.5 particulates. Higher levels of fine particulates have been associated with an increased prevalence of asthma and COPD.Fine particulates formed in incinerators in the presence of toxic metals and organic toxins (including those known to be carcinogens), adsorb these pollutants and carry them into the blood stream and into the cells of the body. Toxic metals accumulate in the body and have been implicated in a range of emotional and behavioural problems in children including autism, dyslexia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning difficulties, and delinquency, and in problems in adults including violence, dementia, depression and Parkinson’s disease. Susceptibility to chemical pollutants varies, depending on genetic and acquired factors, with the maximum impact being on the foetus. Few chemical combinations have been tested for toxicity, even though synergistic effects have been demonstrated in the majority of cases when this testing has been done. Monitoring of incinerators has been unsatisfactory in the lack of rigor, the infrequency of monitoring, the small number of compounds measured, the levels deemed acceptable, and the absence of biological monitoring. Approval of new installations has depended on modelling data, supposed to be scientific measures of safety, even though the method used has no more than a 30% accuracy and ignores the important problem of secondary particulates. There are now alternative methods of dealing with waste which would avoid the main health hazards of incineration and would be far cheaper in real terms, if the health costs were taken into account.

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