Taken from the current edition of the Big Issue in the North magazine, please buy a copy when you see a seller.
In a bid for tougher regulations, residents who fear wood dust emissions are harming their health have released a report condemning waste wood and recycling plants sited near them.
It has been published after residents in a number of communities hosting wood plants complained of respiratory problems.
Wood dust is classed as a carcinogen and regulations permit a lower concentration of it in the air than other damaging particles. But the Environment Agency classifies wood plants as no more than a “nuisance” to residents, not a health risk.
Campaigners fear residents have lower standards of protection from the health threats of wood dust than employees.
The report, No Proof of No Harm: a Citizen Science Investigation (CSI) assesses five affected communities: Avonmouth Docks, Mossley and Horwich in Greater Manchester, Shoreham, Frodsham in Cheshire and Kirkby in Merseyside.
It investigates the impact of the wood dust on the communities, analyses Environment Agency (EA) studies and reveals the results of independent dust exposure tests.
The report criticises an EA study in Mossley in winter 2011-12 for failing to test for a range of hazardous substances including arsenic and lead, being undertaken in cold and wet months, and for locating equipment that cannot effectively monitor smaller particles away from the prevailing wind. There are similar criticisms of studies, including those by local authorities, at other locations.
Inspired by American environmentalist Erin Brockovich’s successful fight against energy corporation PG&E over water contamination, CSI claims there is a “lack of adequate enforcement by industry regulations to mitigate waste wood emissions in communities... where fine dust particles hazardous to health can stay suspended for a considerable time, particularly overnight”.
The report wants health authorities to provide peer-reviewed evidence for their claims that health issues reported by communities are not connected to wood emissions.
It concludes that regulations for waste wood processing are “out of date, arbitrary and without medical rationale”, adding: “Without full chemical analysis and quantification of emissions there is No Proof of No Harm.” The groups involved are seeking a public inquiry, funding for more research, and for the government to amend legislation classifying wood dust only as a nuisance to residents.
Hilda Palmer from the Manchester Hazards Centre, which supported the report along with scientists, said: “CSI shows the authorities where they are going wrong and should spur them on to carry out a proper scientific investigation, which learns from the research they have done, not the unscientific blind-eye approaches they are currently conducting.
“Sadly, we don’t have safe environmental standards. Legal limits can still make people ill. If people – workers or communities – are reporting ill health, then the authorities should discover why. And if it is related to a local source then sort it out. Why is dust containing carcinogens and allergens escaping from a workplace and contaminating people’s homes and the environment?”
An EA spokesperson said: “There are standards set by the government to ensure the quality of air we breathe is acceptable. We use our regulatory powers to ensure the dust from installations we regulate does not cause these standards to be breached.”
Jill Meara, deputy director of government body Public Health England’s centre for chemicals, said: “The main health problems associated with wood dust are linked to long- term occupational exposure in workplaces resulting in skin disorders, nasal obstruction, asthma and a rare type of nasal cancer.”