New report condemns incinerators as threat to human health…and Labour for continued support

Greenpeace’s scientific study on waste incinerators reveals health impacts cancers, heart disease, birth defects, allergies and breathing problems with the NGO criticising the Labour Party for being the only mainstream party that favours incineration.


Incineration and Human Health, compiled by the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter, is described as a comprehensive review of all available scientific data on the impacts of incineration on human health and the effects of specific chemicals discharged from incinerators. The organisation also roundly criticises Labour policy, which it says, plans to construct more than 100 new incinerators, “despite widespread public opposition” and the fact that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are seeking a moratorium.

Greenpeace says that people living near incinerators risk exposure to a range of toxic chemicals by breathing contaminated air or by eating contaminated produce, such as vegetables, eggs and milk, or by skin contact with contaminated soil. The most toxic by-products of burning rubbish are dioxins, which are formed when substances that contain chlorine, such as PVC are burnt. Numerous studies, the organisation says, confirm that a typical incinerator releases a cocktail of toxic chemicals, including dioxins, lead, cadmium, mercury and fine particles, into the atmosphere, however, there has been little follow up investigation into the effects of the chemicals on people near living near incinerators.

Despite the lack of reliable research, the report contains “some worrying findings”, including:

  • a study conducted on 70 municipal waste incinerators in the UK operating between 1974 and 1987, and 307 hospital waste incinerators from 1953 to 1980, identified a two-fold increase in the cancer deaths in children living nearby. These results were consistent with a second study in 1998 and 2000, showing increased child cancers for hospital incinerators and large scale, high temperature combustion industries;
  • a 1996 study on residents living “close” to a municipal solid waste (MSW) incinerator in an un-named urban area in Italy found a 6.7-fold increase in deaths from lung cancer;
  • a 1989 study on people working at a Swedish MSW incinerator between 1920 and 1985 found a 3.5-fold increase in deaths from lung cancer, and a 1.5-fold increase in deaths from cancer of the oesophagus;
  • the same 1989 study also found an excess of ischemic heart disease, especially in workers with more than 40 years exposure; and
  • a recent study on 14 million people living within 7.5 km of two MSW incinerators in the UK found a 37% increase in mortality from liver cancer, although social deprivation “could not be totally ruled out as a confounder”.

Greenpeace says that it is often argued that ‘new’ UK incinerators that were built or upgraded after laws came into force in 1996 to clean up incinerators are far superior to older plants and eliminate many health concerns, but this is not the case. Modern incinerators still emit large quantities of toxic chemicals into the air and although reductions of some compounds emitted to air have been achieved, these are merely transferred to ashes, which are dumped in landfills, where the chemicals may leach out, the NGO says. Some incinerators have been mixing the toxic waste ashes with building aggregate to be used in road building, leaving a toxic heritage for future generations, it adds.

Greenpeace wants to see the phase out of industrial incineration by 2020, including MSW incinerators and has highlighted the stance taken by the main political parties on the issue. “Labour are clearly the party of incineration,” said Greenpeace toxics campaigner Mark Strutt. “Their waste policy compromises any attempts to appear green and they will suffer the political consequences of attempting to foist more than 100 incinerators on an unwilling public.” The Conservative Party has announced that it would introduce a moratorium on new incinerators until “independent British scientific evidence proves they are safe,” while the Liberal Democrats “would see a massive increase in recycling, re-use and waste minimisation and a reduction in landfill without resorting to unpopular, dangerous incinerators.”

“This review makes it clear that by any reasonable assessment of the available evidence it is reckless and harmful to continue the incineration of domestic waste,” Strutt added. “Rather than proposing a massive expansion in the number of incinerators, the Government should be shutting them down as soon as possible.”

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