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Feel the burn

With dozens of new incinerators poised to appear all over Britain, why is the UK so far behind the United States in concern over possible health risks to the public?

Incinerators emit fine smoke particulates, known as PM2.5, from burning rubbish. These are less than 2.5 microns in diameter and can be absorbed straight into the blood. In 1997, the US passed tough new laws requiring coal-fired power stations and incinerators to measure PM2.5 continually and to keep down emissions.

The new laws followed a series of articles in the New England Journal of Medicine and studies from the Harvard Air Effects Institute which found a strong association with overall mortality, cardiovascular deaths and also lung cancer.

The regulations were challenged by the power companies but upheld by the US supreme court as the evidence of the dangers of PM2.5 was undeniable.

In Britain, by contrast, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) has repeatedly said that “modern incinerators” when “well run” cause “very little public health damage”.

This has suited the government because incinerators, although expensive when built under the private finance initiative (PFI), allow the government to pay less EU landfill tax.

The Commons environmental audit committee did put out a report in 2009-2010 stating that: “The costs and health impact of fine particle,PM2.5, air pollution is almost twice that of obesity and physical inactivity.” Obesity was then costing the health system £ 10.7bn a year, while PM2.5 pollution was estimated to cost up to £ 20.2bn. The report also asked why fine particle pollution received no attention in media and medical circles.

Part of the answer might lie in the high number of government advisers involved in expensive (and so remunerative) incinerator PFI schemes.

In addition, an emissions tester for incinerators has contacted the Eye to add to the picture.

This whistleblower says that to fulfill the Environment Agency permit, PM2.5 is not continuously measured and incinerator companies only have to send measurements from their stacks usually once a year.

Private companies charge between £10,000 and £120,000 a year to carry out the tests. But if an incinerator fails, the companies have no duty to report this to the Environment Agency and another test is done later. The incinerator companies can decide when it is done and will do it months in advance to make sure they get the right result.

Companies can even change the type of waste they burn and the temperature at which they do so for test day.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs admits to having 62 Monitoring stations across the UK for PM2.5, none of them anywhere near an incinerator.

Given that the UK had 103 incinerator sites licensed in 2010, and By 201 I a further 20 applications from the large power companies were on the books at Defra, it is surely time for the UK to start following the stricter monitoring policies of the US.

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