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May 29th, 2013:

Incinerators and their Health Effects

Irish Doctors’ Environmental Association

Incinerators and their Health Effects

Incinerators and their Health Effects

June 2006-06-15

Incineration is a topical subject in Ireland as our government presses ahead with plans to build various incinerators around the Irish countryside to deal with our waste problem. History has demonstrated that it may take decades to identify the health effects of procedures that produce more chemicals into our environment. Time and again, early warning signs have often gone unheeded and proven to be far more important than we realized at the time. Aside from the well-known premature assurance given regarding the use of toxic pesticides such as DDT in the past, it was also unexpected to find that a major source of dioxin contamination of food supplies was due to the older generation of incinerators in the UK. For these reasons, the British Society for Ecological Medicine has recently published a report on the health effects of waste incinerators. They explain in their introduction that the purpose of their report is “to look at all the evidence and come to a balanced view about the future dangers that would be associated with the next generation of waste incinerators”.

Incineration does not solve the problem of waste, it only reduces waste to approximately 30 – 50 % of the original compressed waste mass, and this is converted into an ash that contains some of the most toxic concentrations of substances, such as dioxins and heavy metals. The generation and safe disposal of this toxic waste is very problematic as pollutants from landfill sites have been known to seep out, polluting local water sources, and once they contaminate the water table, their removal is considered to be almost impossible. The EU Commission have stated that this may be one of the most important sources of dioxins in the future. Accidents are also a possibility when moving toxic ash on lengthy road journeys to special landfill sites.

Incinerators release hundreds of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere when the waste is burned. Little is known about the risks of many of these toxic chemicals, particularly when they are combined. The exact composition of the emissions from incinerators is variable depending upon the waste being burnt, the efficiency of the incinerator and the pollution control measure available. As the chemical nature of our waste is changing, the potential for adverse health effects from incineration emissions are very difficult to assess. In terms of health effects, some of the most important constituents of emissions are considered to be particulates, heavy metals and combustion products of man-made chemicals.

Particulates, or particulate matter (PM) is a complex mixture of organic and inorganic particles that can be solid, liquid or both, suspended in the air. There is a large, and increasing body of research highlighting the health dangers of particulates found in incinerator emissions. Research done in 2004 by the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health, Bonn found that:

  • PM increases the risk of respiratory death in infants under 1 year, affects the rate of lung function development, aggravates asthma and causes other respiratory symptoms such as cough and bronchitis in children;
  • PM2.5 seriously affects health, increasing deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer. Increased PM2.5 concentrations increase the risk of emergency hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory causes; and
  • PM10 affects respiratory morbidity, as indicated by hospital admissions for respiratory illness (WHO fact sheet, 2005; 2).

In terms of heavy metals, several of the metals found in the emissions and ash produced by incinerators are known or suspected carcinogens. These toxins accumulate in the body over time. In children they have been implicated in childhood problems including autism, dyslexia, allergies, impulsive behaviour attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well as learning difficulties, lowered intelligence and delinquency. Exposed adults have demonstrated higher levels of violence, dementia and depression than in non-exposed adults. They have also been implicated in Parkinson’s disease. Inhalation of some of them, such as nickel, beryllium, chromium, cadmium and arsenic, is found to increase the risk of lung cancer. Mercury, one of the most dangerous heavy metals, is neurotoxic and implicated in learning disabilities, hyperactivity as well as Alzheimer’s Disease.

The report also found that a large number of the toxins emitted by incinerators can cause damage to the immune system. It is now thought that the synergistic effect of the combination of various toxins is likely to have an even more potent and damaging effect on immunity than any pollutant in isolation. Most of these chemicals are fat-soluble and accumulate in the fatty organs and tissue. They are particularly dangerous to the unborn child because many of these toxins are actively transmitted to the foetus across the mother’s placenta, for the body mistakes heavy metals for essential minerals. Until very late in the pregnancy, the only fatty tissues that the foetus has, is its nervous system and particularly the brain, so it is there that they accumulate.

The National Research Council was established to advise the US government on the extent of population that would be exposed to health hazards by an incinerator. They concluded that,

Persistent air pollutants, such as dioxins, furans and mercury can be dispersed over large regions – well beyond local areas and even the countries from which the sources emanate. Food contaminated by an incinerator facility might be consumed by local people close to the facility or far away from it. Thus, local deposition on food might result in some exposure of populations at great distances, due to transport of food to markets. However, distant populations are likely to be more exposed through long-range transport of pollutants and low-level widespread deposition on food crops at locations remote from an incineration facility (,2005;34).

When looking at the updated incinerators that cause less air pollution, they found that they cause more toxic ash, which is easily wind-borne. It is of critical importance, that there is still no adequate method for disposing with this toxic fly ash and that it has a record of being poorly regulated.

The evaluated cost of incineration is enormous, not just in the waste disposal costs, which are very high, but also in health and environmental damage, which can cost countries billions to address. It was exactly for these types of situations that the Precautionary Principle was introduced into national and international law. A recent review of health effects of incinerators found a positive exposure-disease association with cancer and congenital malformations. It would therefore seem that from the evidence presented in this report, that building municipal waste incinerations not only contravenes the Precautionary Principle but possibly, European law.

Finally, the authors of the report note that,

Taking into account these results and the difficulty in identifying causes of cancers and other chronic diseases, it is a matter of considerable concern that incinerators have been introduced without a comprehensive system to study their health effects and that further incinerators are being planned without comprehensive monitoring either of emission or of the health of the local population. (B.S.E.M. report, 2005; 21)

As Professor C. V. Howard from the Centre for Molecular Biosciences, University of Ulster, concluded in his foreword on the report,

Incineration destroys accountability and this encourages industries to go on making products that lead to problematic toxic wastes. Once the waste has been reduced to ash who can say who made what? The past 150 years has seen a progressive “toxification” of the waste stream with heavy metals, radionuclides and synthetic halogenated organic molecules. It is time to start reversing that trend. We won’t achieve that while we continue to incinerate waste.

Juliet Duff,
Irish Doctors’ Environmental Association (IDEA)


British Society for Ecological Medicine Report (2005) The Health Effects of Waste Incinerators can be downloaded from the

WHO, EUROPE, fact sheet euro (04/2005) Berlin, Copenhagen, Rome, Particulate matter air pollution: how it harms health, can be downloaded

Potential, existing and prevented incinerators

UKWIN maintains an interactive map and a table of existing, potential and prevented municipal waste incinerators, as well as an archive of annual incinerator performance reports and case studies


This section brings together a broad range of information related to incineration and to wider waste matters. Please feel free to use this information to help inform your own anti-incineration campaigns. You are welcome to reproduce, adapt and share this information.

UKWIN Campaign Guide (UPDATED: December 2012)

Material produced as part of the UKWIN Campaign Guide series to support local campaigners.

Campaign Material

This section contains resources that can be directly used in your campaigns. Over time this section will include posters, leaflets and templates.

Briefings and Consultation Submissions

This section of the UKWIN website provides an archive of useful documents that can be used either as they are or to inform new documents such as planning objections.

Consultations submissions include responses to waste strategies and Government consultations.

Detroit incinerator

Guidance for Waste Collection Authorities on the Household Waste Recycling Act 2003

Download PDF : DEFRA Housewaste guidance re Recycling Act

Wal-Mart stores dumped hazardous waste down sewage drains

Wal-Mart stores dumped hazardous waste down sewage drains

3 hrs ago

Wal-Mart pleaded guilty today to dumping hazardous waste in California. The company admitted in federal court in San Francisco to dumping pollutants from stores into sanitation drains across the state. Wal-Mart will pay $81 million, part of which will cover dumping charges in Missouri. A Wal-Mart spokesperson said, “We have fixed the problem. We are obviously happy that this is the final resolution.” This isn’t the first time Wal-Mart hasn’t disposed of hazardous waste properly. In 2010, the company was found improperly disposing of pesticide, fertilizer and paint and fined $27.6 million. They didn’t “fix the problem” that time? [Source]

Trending topic: wal-mart pleads guilty

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Walmart Pleads Guilty To Dumping Hazardous Waste, Will Pay $81 Million

The retail giant entered the plea in federal court in San Francisco to misdemeanor counts of violating the Clean Water Act and another environmental law regulating pesticides. The fine also settled Environmental Protection Agency allegations.

In Kansas City, Mo., the company pleaded guilty to improperly handling pesticides.

The plea agreements ended a nearly decade-old investigation involving more than 20 prosecutors and 32 environmental groups that has cost Wal-Mart a total of $110 million.

Court documents show illegal dumping occurred in 16 California counties from Del Norte to Orange between 2003 and 2005. Federal prosecutors said the company didn’t train its employees on how to handle and dispose hazardous materials at its stores.

The result, prosecutors say, was that waste was tossed into trash bins or poured into sewer systems. The waste also was improperly taken to one of several product return centers throughout the U.S. without proper safety documentation, authorities said.

In 2010, the company agreed to pay $27.6 million to settle similar allegations made by California authorities that led to the overhaul of its hazardous waste compliance program nationwide.

“By improperly handling hazardous waste, pesticides and other materials in violation of federal laws, Wal-Mart put the public and the environment at risk and gained an unfair economic advantage over other companies,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Justice Department.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said the company has fixed the problem and is “obviously happy that this is the final resolution.”

She said employees are better trained on how to clean up, transport and dispose of dangerous products such as fertilizer that are spilled in a store or have packages damaged.

Workers are armed with scanners that tell them whether a damaged package is considered to contain a hazardous material, she said

Moreno said the fines against Wall-Mart “will, in part, fund important environmental projects in the communities impacted by the violations and help prevent future harm to the environment.”

The state investigation began eight years ago when a San Diego County health department employee saw a worker pouring bleach down a drain.

In another instance, officials said a Solano County boy was found playing in a mound of fertilizer near the garden section of a Wal-Mart. The yellow-tinted powder contained ammonium sulfate, a chemical compound that causes irritation to eyes, skin and the respiratory tract.