Resource Use

Study finds no ‘conclusive’ evidence of EfW health risks

A study carried out by Imperial College London (ICL) has found “no conclusive links” between incinerators and negative health impacts in new-born children, though states that further research is ‘warranted’.

The study, funded by Public Health England and the Scottish Government and carried out by ICL’s Small Area Health Statistics Unit (SAHSU), investigated whether proximity to Municipal Waste Incinerators (MWIs) – otherwise known as energy-from-waste or EfW plants – was associated with congenital anomalies and other negative birth outcomes.

EfW plants are intended to burn residual waste, which is then converted into energy. Public concerns abound regarding the public health impacts of the emissions produced by these facilities.

The study was carried out over a period spanning from 2003 to 2010 and investigated the annual risks of congenital anomalies, including heart and genital problems such as hypospadia, in new-born children living within 10 kilometres of 10 EfW plants in England and Scotland. Emissions of particulate matter up to 10 micrometres in diameter (PM10) from these plants were used as a proxy for EfW emissions across the UK more generally.

Study finds no ‘conclusive’ evidence of EfW health risksOverall, 219,486 births, stillbirths and terminations of pregnancy were included in the study, with 5,154 cases of congenital anomalies.

The paper’s results found that there is ‘no increased risk of congenital anomalies in relation to mean modelled PM10 concentrations from MWIs in England and Scotland as a proxy for MWI emissions more generally.’

However, ‘small increased risks (2-7 per cent) with proximity to the nearest MWI were observed for all congenital anomalies combined, congenital heart defects and genital anomalies, specifically hypospadias’, with risk increasing by two per cent for each kilometre closer to an incinerator – though it is not clear what is causing this increased risk.

Further investigation ‘warranted’

It was noted in the study that there were other factors that could have influenced the results, aside from proximity to an incinerator, including levels of deprivation and other socio-economic factors – these were factored into the results. A 2004 report from Friends of the Earth found that EfW incinerators are often placed in areas experiencing high deprivation, with 50 per cent of the incinerators operating at that time in England located in the most deprived 10 per cent of wards.

The study states that ‘it is not possible from these data to exclude a potential causal effect’ of EfW emissions, with further investigation into health outcomes of exposure to emissions ‘warranted’.

Commenting on the results of the study, Professor Paul Elliott, Director of SAHSU, said: “Based on the available data, our findings showing that there is no significant increased risk of infant death, stillbirth, preterm birth or effects on birthweight from municipal waste incinerators are reassuring.

“The findings on birth defects are inconclusive, but our study design means we cannot rule out that living closer to an incinerator in itself may slightly increase the risk of some specific defects – although the reasons for this are unclear.”

‘No conclusive links’

A spokesperson for the Environmental Services Association (ESA), which represents the waste management industry in the UK, stated that the organisation “has welcomed the clear evidence that there is no link between EfW chimney emissions and the health impacts under investigation”.

ESA’s Executive Director, Jacob Hayler added: “The latest study from SAHSU reflects the research unit’s own earlier findings that there are no conclusive links between exposure to EfW emissions and adverse health impacts. The paper reinforces Public Health England’s position, which remains that modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators do not pose a significant risk to public health, and this should reassure anyone living near an EfW plant.

“We would however welcome further research into some health aspects raised by the report. As recognised by the researchers, other sources of pollution – as well as socio-economic dynamics – may be at play, and we would like to see further work on this subject so that we can reassure everyone that – as per the wealth of existing evidence – EfWs are a safe and clean way of dealing with non-recyclable waste whilst also generating sustainable heat and power for homes and businesses.”

Spinning results

However, while the waste management industry has been reassured by the findings of the support, anti-incineration campaigners have taken issue with this interpretation, pointing to the inconclusive nature of the results and the proxy used for EfW emissions.

Reacting to the announcement, Shlomo Dowen, National Coordinator of the UK Without Incineration Network, said: "The smaller the particle, the bigger the concern. The study, which is described by the authors as 'inconclusive', looked at PM10, when it is known that more damage is caused by the much smaller – ultrafine – particles known as PM0.1 (particulate matter measuring 0.1 micrometres or less in diameter). Still, the study indicates that people living near an incinerator were found to have had an increased risk of some birth defects when compared to the general population.

“It is disturbing that the incineration industry is spinning this study to somehow mean that incinerators should be let off the hook. Waste incineration is not only associated with adverse health impacts; incineration releases greenhouse gases, exacerbating climate change. Incineration wastes valuable resources and competes with recycling. Incinerators are bad neighbours that do not pay their way.

“UKWIN calls for an incineration tax and a moratorium on new incineration capacity. The tax is needed to compensate for the harm caused by incinerators, and the ban is necessary to address overcapacity."

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