The health impact on babies of the smallest airborne particles that are generated by municipal waste incinerators will be ignored by a major study.
Complex research started last year and is expected to take two years. A team from Imperial College London and Kings College London are using health data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and congenital anomaly registers.
The study, commissioned by the Health Protection Agency (now Public Health England), is in response to public concerns that emissions are particularly damaging to the health of babies and infants. Critics have claimed that incinerators increase infant mortality levels in the areas surrounding them. Supporters of incinerators claim factors such as deprivation are responsible for any health problems.
The Health Protection Agency first promised a study in 2003, a year before a study in Japan concluded that the risks of infant deaths and malformations decreased with distance from incinerators. A similar study conducted in Italy three years later also came to similar conclusions.
The number of waste incinerators in the UK has risen since then and the study will examine all 22 municipal solid waste incinerators in England, Wales and Scotland, including ones located in Bolton, Grimsby and Kirklees.
Three years ago, The Big Issue in the North reported that residents in Thirsk who were opposed to a proposed new incinerator there were threatened with legal action in a letter from Kirklees Council. This had displayed campaigner Michael Ryan’s claims that the incinerator in the borough was linked to high infant mortality levels.
The letter cited a study by NHS Kirklees that attributed the higher mortality levels to smoking by pregnant women and malnutrition and found “no evidence whatsoever that the higher death rate is in any way due to air pollution of any kind”.
Public Health England agrees, telling politicians: “Provided modern incinerators are well designed and maintained, their contribution to air pollution at ground level is likely to be very small.”
However, Ryan – who lives in Shrewsbury and first became interested in incinerators after two of his children died – used ONS to show that the affluent area of Chingford Green in North London, located close to Britain’s largest incinerator, had a rate of 10.3 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2003-2011. Neighbouring Valley ward had a rate of 9.4 deaths. Both are significantly higher than the national average of 4.56.
Ryan’s examination of all 625 wards in London has revealed that nine of the 44 wards with rates above 7.5 deaths per 1,000 births are clustered around the Edmonton municipal waste incinerator. A further ten are downwind of the cluster of incinerators that includes Colnbrook incinerator. Other clusters above 7.5 include wards around the Kings College Hospital incinerator and one in Bermondsey. There are 59 wards with rates of less than 2 deaths per 1,000 live births and they are in locations with minimal exposure to incinerators.
A pre-publication online copy of the current Public Health England study reveals it will concentrate on filtrating particles of 10 microns (PM10) or more in diameter. No specific work is to be undertaken on particles less than PM2.5, which are able to penetrate deepest into the lungs. European limit values for emissions currently apply to particles of a minimum of PM10 but this will drop to PM2.5 in 2015.
Former Manchester University scientist Graham Cliff told The Big Issue in the North: “The initial failure to regulate asbestos particles below PM10 led to thousands of deaths from mesothelioma across Britain.” Cliff believes Britain lags well behind other countries in assessing the possible health affects of human exposure to what are called nanoparticles. This results in inadequate air pollution regulations.
He also said the current study’s model to assess the dispersion of particles is “out of date”.
The Lullaby Trust, a charity that provides support for bereaved families who have been affected by sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), has funded its own study into the role of air pollution on SIDS and is awaiting the results.
A much longer study – eight years – by 60 scientists connected to the World Health Organisation has concluded that air pollution causes 29,000 early deaths in the UK.
Two million deaths every year globally are believed to result from air pollution from human activity. Whether that includes the impact of waste incinerators remains disputed.