INCINERATION AND HEALTH – THE FACTS

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) burnt in an incinerator generates highly toxic matters (Dioxins, Furans, PCB’s), and liberates others (heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc and chromium), and arsenic as well as fine particles - PM 10, PM 2.5 and even smaller ultra-fine particles – and up to 2000 other molecules whose toxicity has not yet been studied. Other constituents of the exhaust play a role in the production of acid rain, atmospheric ozone depletion and global warming.

Dioxins and Furans and some heavy metals are recognized as being carcinogenic (causing cancers) and teratogenic (affecting the formation and development of the unborn and young child) as well as affecting the immunological system (reduced resistance to infections) and fertility ( 1 ) ( 2 ) It is for this reason that filters are now used in incinerator stacks for the purpose of removing SOME of these molecules It is to be noted that more toxins are produced at start-up and shut-down – and during any incinerator breakdown – while tests of the flue gases would be conducted only twice a year for 7 hours (with prior notice), while at full functioning and with results only available one to four months later. To be noted is that production of Dioxins is increased in facilities used for Waste to Energy because of the longer time the exhaust spends at risky temperatures in the stack.

Tests show that humans already have some dioxins in their bodies – which will have been ingested and eventually concentrated there - through the food-chain. Dioxins and Furans mostly enter the food chain through deposition from the air on to pasture. Dioxins and furans are also formed in forest fires and domestic incineration, but their level in core studies increased as soon as large incinerators were in use over the last 30 years. Once in the body they accumulate over a life-time. They are concentrated in milk (including human) and thus young babies are particularly at risk of high intake.

Studies show that there is no threshold below which there are no toxic effects from these chemicals - all the more reason for not adding to our intake. [ 3 ]

The residues from incineration are concentrated in the filters (called fly-ash) and in the furnace clinker (called bottom ash) and these residues especially the former, thus form a highly toxic “hazardous waste” – needing disposal in special land fills or by other very sophisticated and/or expensive means – with, once more, no guarantee of permanent containment and control. The more efficient the filters, the more the residues in fly ash are concentrated. Mercury from various sources and always present in Municipal Waste is transformed in the incinerator into gaseous mercury which is extremely difficult –and expensive - to filter. It affects the Central Nervous system – and the mental development of children as well as being another known carcinogen.

Particulate Matter in the exhaust is under study – what we do know is that the “fine particles”(PM 2.5 ie less than 2.5 microns in diameter ) and “Ultrafine particles –or “nano-particles”- smaller than the PM 1.0 microns. - carry other toxins such as dioxins and heavy metals deep into the lungs where they damage the lung tissue and are absorbed. They affect development of the lungs in young children and are a cause of several respiratory and cardiac diseases resulting in excess mortality and morbidity in adults [4] [ 5 ] [ 6 ] They are not monitored in incinerator exhaust and any such monitoring should be continuous to be effective. [ 7 ]

These are the known facts – but we now enter the zone of unknowns – to quote a gentleman one might usually hesitate to quote – even the zone of “unknown unknowns.”

Many studies have been done to establish a proven link between proximity to an incinerator of MSW and the incidence of cancers or childhood pathology. Most of these studies do show an increased incidence (and particularly in the incidence of sarcomas and non-Hodgkins-lymphoma) – the results are more than suggestive of a link but often need confirmation by other studies. These other studies would take up to 10 years to complete (the least latent period for cancers) by which time the expected scientific proof would come too late for too many victims. In the case of victims of the Seveso chemical factory disaster in Italy in 1976 the increase in cancers is only becoming evident after 15 to 20 years. ( 8 ) The same applies to studies of workers exposed to high Dioxin levels at work in Germany ( 9 ) (10 ). One is reminded of the tragic consequences of the denial of toxicity of asbestos and tobacco smoke, DDT and PCB’s and CFC’s for so many years. It is the existence of this very doubt about the matter which is the most compelling reason for not subjecting any population to such hazards. Many thousands of doctors throughout the world have campaigned against incinerators because of the real health risks which are involved. Over two million signed the Paris Appeal against chemical pollution of the environment in 2006. ( 11 )

It is obligatory that the “Precautionary Principle” be applied here. This states that where there are threats of serious or irremediable damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. The Democratic Principle recognizes that the population involved in any such potentially hazardous project must be consulted and their voice heard.

1. WHO 1998 and 2001
2. IARC 1997
3.
Stein et al Dev& Behav Ped 2002
4. Frampton Environmental Health Perspectives 08.2001
5.
Royal Society Policy Document 10/04
6.
New England Journal of Medicine 09.09.04
7.
BSEM report
8. Bertazzi et al Am Journal of Epidemiology 2001
9. Becher et al Environmental Health Perspectives 1998
10.
Crump et al “ “ “ 2003
11. CPME Standing Committee of European doctors 2006

 

 

 

 

By Dr Julia Maigrot