It has taken more than eight years but it appears the Health Protection Agency [HPA] is set to make good on a 2003 promise by former chief executive Pat Troop to undertake a study into the long-term health effects of chemical exposure from landfill sites and incinerators.
Asked last year about this for a Big Issue in the North article [see Kirklees Incinerator piece at www.markwrite.co.uk/archive.htm] the HPA were unwilling to comment. All of which made it difficult to see how Dr Michael Clark of the HPA could justify his statement that “provided modern incinerators are well designed and maintained, their contribution to air pollution at ground level is likely to be very small.”
It certainly wasn’t sufficient to reassure Paul Holmes, MP for Chesterfield. In 2009 he was left less than satisfied when the Secretary of State for Health told him that no recent assessments had been undertaken on the presence of a functioning incinerator and the incidence of infant mortality across Britain.
“Given the huge public concern about the possible dangers and the relative lack of a track record then the Government should be doing much more to proactively monitor any effect from these plants,” said Holmes.
A view regularly pressed by Shrewsbury’s Michael Ryan since he lost his only daughter at 14 weeks in 1985, and then suffered further tragedies when his 19 year old son David and his mother both died around the turn of the millennium, and couldn’t help noticing that all three had lived downwind of an incinerator.
The result has been one of the most painstaking pieces of research, covering every part of Britain, that your likely to hear of. It took six months alone for Ryan to get the data for all of London’s 625 wards on live births and infant deaths between 2002 and 2008. In twelve there were zero infant deaths. In comparison the South London borough of Southwark, which has two incinerators on its borders, had the highest rate of 7.2 deaths per 1,000 live births. [With the Newington Ward there recording the highest rate out of the 625 at 14.0 per 1,000].
Critics have argued that its not the microscopic particles emitted by incinerators that kill youngsters in these areas, but poverty. It’s certainly true that inhabitants of many of the areas in which incinerators are sited are at the lower end of the social scale but Ryan’s ‘trick’ is to show that the death rates in ‘middle class’ areas are higher if there’s an incinerator lurking in the background. Chingford Green Ward is an affluent area of Waltham Forest and yet it has the second highest average number of child deaths at in the whole of London. It just happens to be close to Britain’s largest incinerator.
Also, asks Ryan, if it it’s all about poverty then how come the levels of infant mortality in countryside areas, where wages are below average, aren’t high?
The issue has certainly been of sufficient importance to the Japanese who back in 2004 conducted their own study and reported that there is a “peak-decline in risk with distance from the municipal solid waste incinerators for infant deaths and infant deaths with all congenital malformations combined."
Now, to cries from “at last” by Ryan the HPA Chief Executive Justin McCracken has written to him to say that he is “pleased to say that following discussions” with Professor Elliott, head of the Small Area Health Statistics Unit at Imperial College, it has been “concluded that an epidemiological study of birth outcomes around municipal waste incinerators would have sufficient power to produce reliable results. Work is now progressing in developing a detailed proposal for what will be a complex study.”