Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Incinerator health study finally gets underway

Britain’s first major study into the impact of emissions from municipal waste incinerators will finally get underway shortly.
First announced nearly a year ago this will see the Small Area Health Statistics Unit, Imperial College London, and the Environmental Research Group, King’s College London, undertake the investigation on behalf of the Health Protection Agency, the body that first promised to carry out the study back in 2003. 
Since when Japan in 2004 and Italy in 2007 have conducted their own studies with the former reporting a “peak-decline in risk with distance from the municipal solid waste incinerators for infant deaths and infant deaths with all congenital malformations combined." Then last year a US study concluded that air pollution from industrial sources damages school children’s health and academic success.

News of the study’s start, which will take two years to complete, has drawn a mixed response from campaigners opposed to incinerators and local authorities that have commissioned them.

Shlomo Dowen, who head’s the UK’s without incinerator network [UKWIN], is concerned that the Health Protection Agency [HPA] has used the recent announcement to re-confirm its belief that ‘any potential damage to the health of those living close to well-regulated municipal waste incinerators is likely to be very small’.

“UKWIN has not been consulted on the study's reference terms to make an informed judgment. I expect even if it identifies correlations it will cite confounding factors and uncertainty to downplay the health impacts. I hope the study surprises me, but unless it does, there is not much to get excited about. Furthermore last year Imperial College signed an industry wide statement that claimed ‘energy from waste is not harmful to the environment or public health’, and so they appear to have already made their mind up even before carrying out this research,” says Shlomo.

Meanwhile a spokesperson for Kirklees Council, whose incinerator is located in a busy residential area, said they “will be studying the findings when they become available in 2014”, but would not be drawn on what should happen if the study concluded that emissions did damage the health of infants and young children.

Back in 2009 the authority threatened legal action against anti-incineration campaigners in the Thirsk area for displaying Shrewsbury’s Michael Ryan claims that their incinerator was linked to above average infant mortality levels in some wards. 

It was after two of his children died that the former local government official determined to find out why. Utilising Office of National Statistics figures to assemble the largest statistical base currently available, Ryan has concluded that infant death rates are much higher in neighbourhoods downwind of incinerators. The stats would suggest he’s right.

Asked if the study would include examining Ryan’s work a spokesperson for the HPA would not comment, but did say “The study will be using original Health data obtained from the Office for National Statistics and congenital anomaly registers.  Exposures will be estimated by dispersion modelling of incinerator emissions.” In other words, no.

Ryan is therefore sceptical saying “the promised study won’t get to the truth as neither the Health Protection Agency, nor the Environment Agency wish to be exposed as having been negligent.”

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