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Book excerpt: Incineration: The Biggest Obstacle to Zero Waste

by Paul Connett, posted on Earth Island Journal:

It is hard to understand why any rational official living in the twenty-first century and facing the critical need to develop sustainable solutions would countenance the squandering of finite material and huge financial resources on a nonsustainable practice like incineration. One European report has estimated that a combination of recycling and composting lowers greenhouse gas production forty-six times more than an incinerator producing electricity.

Incineration might make sense if we had another planet to go to, but without that sci-fi escape it must be resisted in favor of more down-to-earth solutions that we can live with – both within our local communities and on the planet as a whole. Both incineration and landfilling attempt to bury the evidence of an unacceptable throwaway lifestyle. Every incinerator built delays this fundamental realization by at least twenty-five years – about the time it takes to pay back the huge capital costs involved in building the facility, and during that time it has to be fed, leaving little room to allow for more sustainable solutions to coexist.

Ten Arguments Against Incineration
Argument 1: Incinerators Are Very Expensive

Incinerators remain formidably expensive, but that expense is often hidden from public view with giant public subsidies. To pay for the capital and operating costs, as well as the operators’ profit margins, the community or region will have to sign put-or-pay agreements, which trap them for twenty-five years or more. As the industry has struggled to make incineration safe, it has priced itself out of the market – or it would have if the market was applied on a level playing field.

Over half the capital cost of an incinerator built today goes into air pollution control equipment. Ironically, if the waste were not burned in the first place this hugely expensive equipment would not be necessary, nor would the toxic ash collected in these devices have to be sent to an expensive hazardous waste landfill, nor would the air emissions be subjected to very costly monitoring. But the public is being kept ill informed about the poor economics of incineration. Instead, they are being told that incineration is going to save their communities money.


Air pollution recognized as carcinogenic, also linked to prenatal development problems

The World Health Organization (WHO) has finally reported that air pollution causes cancer: vehicle, industrial and other forms of emissions fill the air with a toxic cocktail of chemicals and particulate matter. Meanwhile, the Guardian also reports that air pollution, combined with an environment of heavy traffic, increases the likelihood of babies being born with low birthweight, which leads to other health problems. With Hong Kong suffering from both problems, the government will need to put its foot down to improve the situation if it is serious about improving its citizens’ health.

When pollution strikes hard: Air quality in March 2010 (left), compared to better days. (WSJ)

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Will ‘measurement’ of pollutants in HK take extraterritorial sources into consideration?

Cheung Chi-fai of the SCMP reports that Hong Kong will be linking up with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ‘develop a mechanism to measure changes in air quality and public health’ to help the city improve its environment. The plan, if it could be called one at all at this time, is extremely vague, but even if it becomes the best-laid of plans, it would run into a fundamental problem: the basis of the study is an investigation about the city’s clean air policies, but some of the worst air pollutants come from outside the city’s jurisdiction. For example, ocean-going vessels passing through Hong Kong’s nearby shipping channels use bunker fuels with 2.75 to 4% sulphur content, significantly higher than the 0.005ppm(0.0000005%) of Euro5 diesel fuel; prevailing easterly winds blows sulphur compounds and respirable suspended particles (RSP) into Hong Kong, a situation worsened by the density of urban structures that helps to trap air particles within its confines. The many incinerators on the Shenzhen side of the border also figures to be a major factor in Hong Kong’s air quality.

This ‘plan’ would need more serious thinking if it intends to be anywhere near producing true analysis of Hong Kong’s air quality.

Click here to read the SCMP report:

Beijing comes clean on toxic air

The Sunday Times

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Challenge leaves us all out of breath

South China Morning Post – 19 Jan 2012

New emissions targets set for 2014 allow 18 days of levels above the maximum for nitrogen dioxide; the figure for last year was 241 days, shock study shows

The immensity of the challenge facing environmental officials responsible for cleaning the city’s air has been exposed by a study which has matched their latest targets with last year’s air quality figures.

The worst discrepancy is for nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant generated mainly by vehicles.

The targets for 2014 announced by the Environment Bureau on Tuesday, which are not legally enforceable, allow only 18 days of levels exceeding the maximum for this pollutant.

But if last year’s emissions are repeated, the levels will be in excess for 241 days of the year. Concentrations of respirable particulate matter at least 10 microns wide, or PM10, would exceed the limit by 35 days, but the proposed target is only nine days.

The figures, compiled by the University of Hong Kong’s school of public health for the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583announcementsnews) , came a day after the bureau said it would toughen the city’s air quality objectives in 2014.

The new objectives, updating targets formulated in 1987, lay down limits for seven pollutants that are between 10 per cent and 64 per cent more stringent than existing ones.

Critics have slammed officials for the delay in adopting the new objectives and aiming low, as targets for four of the seven pollutants – sulphur dioxide, PM10, PM2.5 and ozone – would be based only on the World Health Organisation’s interim, rather than ultimate, targets.

But officials said targets needed to be practical, as regional pollution – from sources outside Hong Kong’s borders – was beyond its control.

Dr Lai Hak-kan from the University of Hong Kong, who applied the 2011 figures to 2014’s standards, said the WHO suggested no allowances be made at all for most pollutants.

The exception was a three-day allowance for particulate matter, as these levels could be increased by typhoons and dust storms. But Lai said: “Our government sets an even higher nine days for particulate matter, PM10 and PM2.5 [the finest category of particulates, at 2.5 microns].

“Nine days of heavy pollution can cost many lives, especially for people with chronic illnesses. An even bigger problem is that no matter how many days the pollution goes over the limit, the government will, like in the past, face no legal consequences.”

Although the new targets will become statutory requirements after amendments to the Air Pollution Control Ordinance, there will be few legal consequences of a breach, except for infrastructure or construction projects.

When applying for a government work permit for such projects, the owners will have to ensure their works do not worsen the air quality by more than the legal limits.

According to the Clean Air Network, US citizens can take out a civil action against the Environmental Protection Agency if air quality standards are not satisfactory.

And the European Union can withhold funds from regional development projects if there is a breach of air quality standards. But Helen Choy Shuk-yi, general manager of Clean Air Network, said: “The air quality objectives will be meaningless if officials can’t tell us how legally binding they are. Will infrastructure works have to stop if the objectives are not met? Officials are only diverting our attention when they give us those figures.”

A spokeswoman for the Environment Bureau did not respond when asked about any consequences for a breach of the tougher standards.

Secretary for Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah said yesterday that the government would continue to implement the 22 measures identified to improve air quality.

But he reiterated that those measures would come with a cost. “We will have to share the costs,” he said. “By reducing emissions from power plants and making them switch to [natural gas], there may be a 20 per cent increase in electricity tariffs.”

By phasing out old buses with dirty engines, transport fees could rise by 15 to 20 per cent, he added.

Thomas Choi Ka-man, senior environmental officer from Friends of the Earth, criticised the secretary for highlighting just the costs and not the benefits to public health.

Javelin Park Investigation – UK plant filters ‘let particulates through’

10:20am Wednesday 4th January 2012

By Chris Warne

STRICT regulations forbidding the emission of tiny particles from incinerators are needed to safeguard public health, warns Dr Dick van Steenis.

Ultrafine PM1 and PM2.5 particulates which are released when waste is incinerated are causing premature infant and child deaths, he believes.

Dr van Steenis also claims these particles, which are small enough to be inhaled by humans, are linked to a host of other adverse health effects, including birth defects, childhood cancers, respiratory illnesses and heart attacks.

In evidence submitted to a House of Commons select committee in May last year, Dr van Steenissaid the Environment Agency had admitted that 90 percent of PM1s and 35 per cent of PM2.5s escape through filters installed in UK incinerators.

This, the retired GP claimed, meant that UK incinerators were emitting somewhere between 40 to 120 times more particulates than those in Finland or Sweden, where air quality regulations are tighter.

In his submission to the Environmental Audit Committee, Dr van Steenis also criticised the Health Protection Agency for failing to examine data at ward level, which would allow the HPA to assess the health impact of incinerator fumes.

The HPA has so far refused to look at ONS figures despite it being recommended by the World Health Organisation, he said.

GLOSVAIN protesters and Lib Dem county councillors have been calling on Gloucestershire County Council to consider a mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plant as an alternative to the Javelin Park incinerator.

However, Dr van Steenis is equally opposed to that option on the grounds that a large amount of leftover waste from MBT plants still has to be incinerated or put into landfill.

“What we should be looking at are plasma arc gasification plants because they break everything down into atoms,” he said.

Dr van Steenis believes plasma arc gasification plants are the safest and most environmentally friendly option and are capable of generating more energy from waste than incinerators.

© Copyright 2001-2012 Newsquest Media Group

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Download PDF : Incinerator HPA Response

EU adopts stricter air quality rules

The EU Council of Ministers has endorsed a new directive setting binding EU-wide limits for fine particle emissions, which cause respiratory diseases thought to reduce European life expectancy by up to three years.

The new EU air quality directive was approved on 14 April 2008, following an agreement reached by the Council and the Parliament at the end of 2007. The directive sets EU-wide limits on fine particle emissions (PM2.5) for the first time ever.

These microscopic particles, emitted mainly by cars and trucks, pose health risks due to their ability to pass unfiltered through the nose and mouth, penetrating deep into human lungs and bloodstreams, where they can cause potentially fatal respiratory and/or pulmonary diseases.

“Air pollution is serious,” said EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas’s spokesperson Barbara Helfferich, adding that, according to studies, an average European lives eight months less as a result of fine particle matter in the air. “In more polluted areas of the EU, the figure goes up to 36 months,” she said on 14 April 2008.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said the directive’s adoption was “a decisive step in tackling a major cause of environmental and health problems”. He added that the new directive provides “ambitious but realistic standards for fine particle PM2.5 pollution” in the EU.

The directive obliges member states to reduce exposure to PM2.5 in urban areas by an average of 20% by 2020 based on 2010 levels, bringing the exposure levels below 20 micrograms/m3 by 2015. In other areas, the member states will need to respect the PM2.5 limit value set at 25 micrograms/m3 by as early as 2010 if possible – and at the latest by 2015.

In a statement annexed to the directive, the Commission announces a number of new legislative proposals it plans to put forward in 2008 for ever improved air quality. These include further reduction of the member states’ permitted national emissions of key pollutants, reduction of emissions associated with refuelling of petrol cars at service stations, and addressing the sulphur content of fuels, including marine fuels.

The Commission also notes that it is currently studying the feasibility of improving the eco-design and reducing the emissions of domestic boilers and water heaters as well as reducing the solvent content of paints, varnishes and vehicle refinishing products.

Lethal fine particulate matter emissions need urgent regulation – not prevarication

Download CTA letter to Legco Members : CTAPM2.5news

PM2 5 Allstns (2011) Middleton (2)

Residents cry foul at city’s blue skies boast

South China Morning Post – 19 Dec. 2011

Microbloggers liken Beijing authorities’ claims of decreasing air pollution to an April fool’s day joke

Beijing’s environmental authorities said yesterday that air quality in the capital city in 2011 was better than during the Olympics year of 2008, and that they had already met their target of “blue sky” days for this year, despite growing public concern that officials are covering up worsening problems of air pollution.

“Beijing has seen an overall decline in the concentration of various pollutants in 2011,” said Zhuang Zhidong, the deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.

The city had 274 days of “grade one or two” air quality, according to a statement posted on the Beijing government’s official news portal yesterday. China uses a five-grade classification system to rate its air quality, with one being the best and five the worst. Days graded one or two are considered “blue sky days”.

Overall air quality in Beijing was better than last year, and there were 22 more days of grade-one air quality than were recorded in 2010, and 11 more than in 2008, when Beijing hosted the Olympics, Zhuang said.

Zhuang admitted that the capital also saw “several days of poor air quality as a result of bad weather conditions”. Factors such as weaker winds and a rise in humidity can raise the presence of atmospheric pollutants, according to the bureau.

The environment ministry is under pressure to change the way it measures air quality after thick smog blanketed Beijing earlier this month, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights and triggering a surge in sales of face masks.

Public anger over heavy pollution has been compounded by official data showing air quality is good, or only slightly polluted, on days with obvious heavy smog that the US embassy rated as “very unhealthy”.

Beijing authorities use a method known as PM10, focusing on larger air particles. The bureau said that PM10, or particulate matter under 10 micrometres, decreased to 114 micrograms per cubic metre this year, the lowest in four years.

But there have been growing public calls for the government to adopt the tighter PM2.5 standard, which measures much smaller particles that are considered more hazardous to people’s health as they penetrate deeper into the lungs.

CCTV anchorwoman Zhang Quanling posted on Sina weibo, a popular microblog site, that it was “ridiculous” that [the Beijing environmental authorities] never changed their measurements on air pollution. “They’re indulged in self-praise,” she wrote.

Many internet users expressed doubt or anger over the authorities’ assessment of the city’s air quality.

The Beijing environmental bureau deserves to be described as “shameless’, said one weibo user.  Another post read: “A rubbish government without any credibility.”

“Is today April Fool’s Day?” asked another weibo user. “I suggest that Beijing’s environmental authorities wear sunglasses with a blue lens, so that every day is a blue sky day!”

Fine particle health risks calculated for roughly city size areas in California

Dec. 9, 2011

Three new studies released today by the California Air Resources Board reveal that exposure to airborne fine-particulate matter significantly elevates the risk for premature deaths from heart disease in older adults and elevates incidence of strokes among post-menopausal women. Heart disease is the number one killer in California and is responsible for approximately 35% of annual deaths.

“We’ve long known particulate matter is a major component of California’s air pollution problem,” said ARB Chairman Mary D. Nichols. “These new studies underscore the need to eliminate the threat from California’s air.”

Particulate matter is a complex blend of substances ranging from dry solid fragments, solid-core fragments with liquid coatings, and small droplets of liquid. These particles vary in shape, size and chemical composition, and can contain metals, soot, nitrates, sulfates and very fine dust. One source of particulate matter, including PM2.5 or fine-particulate –matter, is exhaust from vehicles, especially from diesel engines. PM 2.5 is particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter – a human hair is about 60 microns in diameter.
Michael Jerrett, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, found that exposure to fine particulate matter significantly elevated the risks for premature death from heart disease. The most frequent cause of death associated with PM2.5 in this study was ischemic heart disease, which can lead to heart attacks and heart failure. The findings of this study are based on the California participants in a large study sponsored by the American Cancer Society, which tracked 76,000 adults from 1982 to 2000.

In another study, Michael Lipsett, M.D., of the California Department of Public Health, led a team that examined the effects of chronic air pollution exposure on heart disease in women. The project tracked over 100,000 current and former female public school teachers and administrators in California. Like the University of California, Berkeley study, Dr. Lipsett found that exposure to PM2.5 elevated the risks for premature mortality from ischemic heart disease. In addition, this study found an increased risk of stroke among women who had never had one before, particularly among those who were post-menopausal.

These two studies demonstrate a relationship between long-term PM2.5 exposure and cardiovascular effects, such as heart attacks and strokes.

The third study, by Fern Tablin, V.M.D., Ph.D., and Dennis Wilson, D.V.M., Ph.D., of the University of California, Davis, investigated how inhaled PM2.5 could contribute to heart attacks and strokes. A common cause of heart attacks and strokes is development of clots in the blood stream. One suggested explanation is that PM2.5 exposure activates platelets, the key cells involved in blood clotting, so that they form clots and then trigger heart attacks and strokes. Drs. Tablin and Wilson examined the platelets of mice exposed to PM2.5 from the San Joaquin Valley Air Basin, and found that mice exposed to fine particulate matter showed platelet activation in both winter and summer, which could promote clotting and lead to stroke and heart attacks.

These new studies add to the existing scientific literature indicating that microscopic airborne particles pose a threat to public health. California Air Resources Board calculations of combined cardiovascular and respiratory (i.e., cardiopulmonary) deaths associated with PM2.5 exposure are based on the results of the national American Cancer Society study. Annually, 7,300 to 11,000 premature cardiopulmonary deaths in California are estimated to be associated with exposures to fine particulate matter.
Estimate of Premature Deaths Associated with Fine Particle Pollution (PM2.5) in California Using a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Methodology (39 pages)

The U.S. EPA’s reports were peer reviewed in a public process by the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) Particulate Matter Review Panel, an
independent peer review body of national scientists.

There are a large number of published health studies that estimate the
additional risk of mortality due to long-term exposure to PM2.5. U.S. EPA’s new
quantitative health risk assessment for particulate matter uses a 2009 study
(Krewski et al., 2009) for the core analysis. This study is an extension of a 2002
study (Pope et al., 2002) used in the previous PM2.5 NAAQS risk assessment.
This report estimates premature death from PM2.5 in California based on the
2009 Krewski study.

Using U.S. EPA’s methodology, the estimated number of annual PM2.5-related
premature deaths in California is 9,200 with an uncertainty range of 7,300 –
11,000. This estimate of premature deaths is based on the latest exposure
period in the 2009 Krewski study with data from 116 U.S. cities and about
500,000 people.

The results of the national scale assessment are shown above. In U.S. EPA’s table the bolded figures indicate the estimate that corresponds with the lowest measured level in the epidemiological study. The bolded estimates in the Krewski et al. (2009) column were calculated using the same risk coefficients as the urban case study. U.S. EPA indicates a greater emphasis is placed on the results calculated using the lowest measured level reported in the epidemiological studies. The estimated total PM2.5-related premature mortality ranges from 63,000 – 80,000 for the two time periods in the Krewski et al. (2009) study to the lowest measured level of 5.8 μg/m3. For the Laden et al. (2006) study the estimate is 88,000 with a lowest measured level of 10 μg/m3. The 90% percent confidence intervals are shown in each case. The U.S. EPA national assessment is based on 2005 PM2.5 levels. This report provides a California estimate based on air quality data from the years 2006-2008.
Links to the studies:

Michael Jerrett:
Michael Lipsett:
Fern Tablin: