Select Committee on European Communities Eleventh Report


58. Another major area covered by the enquiry were the implications of waste incineration for human health, on which concern was expressed by several witnesses, including Communities against Toxics, Friends of the Earth and Dr Dick van Steenis. Historically, much of the concern has been focused on dioxins, and against this background the Commission's proposals include strict ELVs for dioxins and furans (introduced for the first time as far as municipal incinerators are concerned). Professor Dame Barbara Clayton, Past-President of the NSCA, said that many of the public's perceptions of the health risks from incineration were misguided—particularly in relation to dioxins. Animal studies showed a wide range of reactions in different species to dioxin exposure. Human epidemiological studies largely related to "dirty old incinerators", two-thirds of which had since been closed as a result of tightening standards. (QQ 267-9, 291) Professor Holgate believed that the strength of evidence which had been reported in relation to laryngeal carcinoma was "really quite weak" and on the borderline of no significance (Q 370).

59. Professor Bridges felt that the tightening of emission limit values for dioxins would be a reasonable strategy, in that they were carcinogenic, and implying that this might represent a precautionary approach (Q 361). He did not believe that the ELVs that were proposed (which were reported to be at the current limit of detection for dioxins) were based on toxicological assessment but rather on what was technologically achievable (Q 367). In answer to a question about the US Environmental Protection Agency's cautious linear dose approach to setting acceptable standards for genotoxic carcinogens such as dioxins, Professor Bridges and Dr Maynard felt that whilst this attempted to extrapolate to low doses, the resulting numbers were difficult to justify; both supported the alternative European threshold dose approach (Q 399).

60. Mr Tringham said that after dioxins his main concern was about emissions of fine particulate matter, to which the SNCR process (see paragraph 0) was thought to contribute. There was also a particular problem for local authorities in seeking to control nuisance from bonfires—which Professor Clayton commented were themselves a source of dioxins (QQ 270-3, 287, 291).

61. The Commission in its own Explanatory Memorandum acknowledges growing scientific concern about the health risks from very small particles, i.e. down to PM2.5[17]. Professor Clayton said that in the past, ultra-fine particles had been thought to be less hazardous than particles of around PM10; there was some evidence that the smaller particles were potentially even more harmful, because of an ability to migrate to the cells of the lung. It was a field of active, but comparatively recent, research which it was essential to pursue; answers were still some way off. (QQ 279, 284-5)

62. Professor Holgate considered particulates to be the most important issue relating to air pollution and health in general (Q 380). Professor Harrison agreed that an increase in incineration capacity coinciding with a decrease in emissions of particulates from road traffic could lead to a significant increase in the percentage contribution of particulates by incineration (3% in 1996) (Q 381). However, Dr Maynard stressed that an increase in plant alone was not the most important issue in terms of public health, but rather knowledge about the ground-level concentrations of the pollutants in relation to specific plant and the number of people who might be exposed (QQ 388, 402-3). Professor Holgate stressed the importance of health impact assessments in relation to the siting of new plant (Q 398). In general, the evidence suggested that it was important to keep in perspective the relatively very small impact of incineration in terms of air pollutants compared to other industrial and domestic sources.

63. The Environment Agency admitted in its evidence that it was not an expert on human health (Q 156, p 29). Professor Harrison, whilst agreeing that the Agency does not have health information in depth, commented that they were regulating by reference to air quality standards which took effects on human health into account (Q 356). The Agency stressed that it had access to expert advice, not least through a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Health (see Appendix 5). However, Dr Maynard expressed concern that the Department was not appropriately staffed to provide assistance with health impact assessments (Q 422), and generally waited to be approached by the Agency rather than being involved proactively (Q 354). The Environment Agency stressed, as an example of its activities, the investigations which it had undertaken with the Department following concerns in the vicinity of the Clitheroe cement works about air quality and health (Q 161).

64. Concern was also expressed by the health witnesses that there were insufficient data on the potential health risks from the other options for managing waste including landfill, composting and recycling (Q 418). Generally, it was felt that the health aspects of incineration presented many outstanding questions and continuing epidemiological research requirements (Q 428), although Mr Meacher agreed that incineration should not be singled out for excessive or unusual health concern (Q 466).


65. Many witnesses, including the Environment Agency, Chemical Manufacture and Refining Ltd, the British Plastics Federation and Professor Coggins, took a positive view of the Directive's potential for making the practice of waste incineration more acceptable and for improving public confidence in it through the introduction of strict controls; but a contrary view was expressed by Cleanaway: "To over-regulate this sector in response to public fears may serve to fuel the argument. The public may conclude that incinerators must be dangerous and polluting because they are more highly regulated than other industry." (p 144)

66. Other witnesses, e.g. EWA, emphasised that changing public attitudes could take decades. Surrey County Council felt the Directive would do little to allay public fears about waste incineration: "Current public attitudes are built on long-term entrenched views of waste management in the 1960s and 70s. The cultural change required is a much larger task and will only be slightly affected by this Directive." (p 195) Aspinwall and Company considered that increasing emission limits per se would not increase public confidence; the enforcement regime needed to be more visible and good communications established between plant operators and local residents (p 136). The residents' liaison group for SELCHP (visited by members of Sub-Committee C) was one of several successful initiatives in this field (Q 344).

67. Communities Against Toxics, on the other hand, took the view that the public could never be confident about incineration, because of the potential health impacts (p 150). Friends of the Earth felt that access to information on emissions was the key to public confidence, recommending that Article 12 of the draft Directive should be strengthened to give the public access to full monitoring results of pollution standards (p 5).

68. Mr Ray Palin, of the EWA, stressed the importance of building public trust. He did not think that the waste industry was uniquely affected by the "NIMBY" syndrome. There were signs that the climate was improving. "As more plants are built, so the uncertainties and perhaps the fears in the abstract are seen to be misplaced" (Q 342). Other evidence suggested that modern waste incineration facilities had no more difficulty in obtaining planning permission than comparable industrial installations. Mr Gavin Tringham, of Birmingham City Council and representing NSCA, said that in his experience it was probably easier to get planning permission for incinerators than for landfill sites (Q 157). It was not necessarily the atmospheric emissions and their supposed toxic effects that caused concern to residents: it could be a matter of property values, smells or traffic. Much could be done to alleviate this through careful attention to architectural design and the layout of access routes for heavy goods vehicles (Q 263).

69. Mr Meacher had a clear vision of the part that higher standards, effective monitoring and enforcement, and transparency of data had to play in boosting public confidence in incineration as a safe and environmentally sustainable process. "I think the best way of addressing it is by having the clear application of tight and stringent standards and, so far as possible, public involvement in the design and location of incinerator installations….It is important that planning controls, as well as the Environment Agency's issuing of waste management licenses…should involve the public as much as possible…. There is merit in regard to incineration, precisely because there are such strong negative public attitudes about it, in prescribing minimum emission standards, emission limit values, and increasing them over time to meet BAT site­specific requirements….By any scenario there is going to have to be some increase in incineration, and we are going to have to prepare the public for that and change their perception about the risks from incineration, which I genuinely believe are much less than many people believe." (QQ 434, 437, 452, 467)

17   See "PM" in Glossary. Back

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