From the current edition of the Big issue in the North magazine.
A new Turkish study (*) suggests that air pollution and not deprivation is to blame for high levels of infant mortality close to waste incinerators, a researcher claims.
The study shows that infant mortality levels have dropped dramatically since Turkey switched to natural gas for residential and commercial heating and cooking in 1988.
Natural gas produces lower particulate emissions than its predecessor, coal gas, and therefore causes less air pollution.
The effects of air pollution are known to be particularly damaging for infants and young children, whose lungs are not yet developed and immune systems are weak.
Michael Ryan from Shrewsbury first became concerned about air pollution in the UK after he lost two of his children, one at 14 weeks, and considered that their deaths many have been the result of having lived downwind of a waste incinerator.
His intensive research, particularly in the London area, leads him to claim that above average levels of infant mortality levels in wards downwind of incinerators are caused by air pollution.
He has shown that death rates in affluent areas where incinerators are sited are above average, including the Chingford Green ward of Waltham Forest next to the Edmonton municipal waste incinerator.
As previously reported in the Big Issue in the North, Ryan’s theory is supported by studies from Japan and Italy.
Ryan’s critics, however, claim that these above average mortality levels are caused by deprivation.
They point to a 2008 study that attributed falling infant mortality levels generally in England and Wales from 1970 to 2006 solely to the easing of deprivation levels. But this study did not take into account the introduction of natural gas in the two countries.
Ryan said the Turkish study shows that cutting air pollution is associated with cutting infant mortality rates.
“The results of the Turkish study correspond to what happened here when natural gas was introduced and infant mortality rates fell dramatically,” he said. “The link is air pollution, which still kills children.
“UK scientists and politicians are complacent about this. I hope that those behind the UK study in trends between 1970 and 2006 would consider re-examining their work.”
Ryan has been instrumental in forcing Public Health England (PHE) to conduct a study into the impact of incinerator emissions on babies and children’s health. This was first promised in 2003 but began just two years ago. A team from Imperial College London and Kings College London are using health data from the Office for National Statistics and registers of congenital anomalies – health defects present at birth or beforehand.
The number of incinerators in the UK has risen considerably in the last decade. The study is examining all 22 municipal solid waste incinerators, including those in Bolton, Grimsby and Kirklees. But PHE has just announced that the results are being delayed because of the “unanticipated complexity in gathering data”.
The current PHE position is that “well run and regulated modern municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health”.
But Ryan said: “The spread of incinerators should be halted until we have proof there is no evidence of ill health from their emissions. My work demonstrates that above average levels of infant mortality in wards cannot be just due to deprivation.
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* Starting in Ankara in 1988, Turkey followed the example of the UK two decades earlier by switching to natural gas for residential and commercial heating and cooking.
Burning of natural gas emits virtually no sulfur oxide (SO2), which is the key component of acid rain. Particulate emissions, especially of pollutants such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides are also at much lower levels from burning natural gas compared to many other heat sources. The effects of air pollution are known to be particularly damaging for infants and young children, whose lungs are not yet developed and immune systems are weak.
Over the period 1988 to 2010 three-quarters of Turkey’s provinces were given access to natural gas. This coincided with the infant mortality rate dropping dramatically from 33 to 10 per 1,000 live births between 1990 and 2010.
A study – Air Pollution and Infant Mortality: Evidence from the Expansion of Natural Gas Infrastructure - by Resul Cesur of Connecticut University, Erdal Tekin of Georgia State University and Aydogan Ulker of Deakin University, Australia examined whether the penetration of natural gas services played a part in the falling infant mortality rate.
The study found significantly reduced levels of particulate matter and especially SO2 in the air. After adopting variables that included hospital bed levels, percentages of high school degrees, unemployment levels and income per capita the study concluded: ‘the use of natural gas has resulted in a significant reduction in the infant mortality rate in Turkey.’
Infant mortality rates in England and Wales fell significantly from 19.02 to 6.88 per thousand live births from 1965 to 1990. This was the period when, following its discovery in the North Sea, the UK was converted to natural gas with twenty million gas appliances either adapted or replaced by 1976. Almost 40% of the UK’s energy supply today comes from natural gas.
Unlike in Turkey it would appear that no-one in the UK has considered whether the introduction of natural gas may have played a part in falling infant mortality rates, which today stands at 4.5 per thousand live births.
In 2008, a study, Geographical trends in infant mortality: England and Wales, 1970-2006 by P Norman, I Gregory, A Baker and Danny Dorling did not consider the introduction of natural gas and attributed the improvements solely to the easing of deprivation levels.