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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 May, 2004, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
UK go-ahead to more waste burning
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Bulldozer on landfill site   BBC
Landfill and incinerators "have minor health impacts"
The UK is likely soon to see a large and controversial expansion in the building of huge waste incinerators.

Many people are opposed to the idea of waste incineration, because they think it is liable to damage their health.

But the government says any impacts are likely to be slight, and Environment Minister Elliot Morley says there is no health reason for not building them.

Senior British scientists warn readers of the report that they should realise it is marked by "inherent uncertainty".

Muted approval

The report, Review Of Environmental And Health Effects Of Waste Management: Municipal Solid Waste And Similar Wastes, was prepared by Enviros Consulting and the University of Birmingham for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

It's a fair assumption that there's no health reason why local authorities shouldn't opt for incineration
Elliot Morley, environment minister
It was peer reviewed by the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science, which said the first draft had "significant limitations" and could "mislead the reader".

The society now says the published version of the report has addressed many of its concerns, but still shows "inherent uncertainty".

On the evidence of studies so far, the report says, solid waste disposal has "at most a minor effect on human health and the environment".

Mr Morley said the report was not giving the green light for a new generation of incinerators to be built across the UK: it was simply saying that burning waste was at least no worse than burying it in landfills.

He said: "This report is not a clear steer on incineration, but what it does is put incineration as an option in perspective.

We hope the report will put an end to scaremongering over the health impacts of waste management facilities like incineration
Tim Brown, National Society for Clean Air
"It's a fair assumption that there's no health reason why local authorities shouldn't opt for incineration, especially with energy recovery.

"This report does give us sufficient confidence in our current policies for local authorities to press ahead urgently with the task of approving planning applications for new waste management facilities."

Defra's chief scientific adviser, Professor Howard Dalton, said one study had reported a link between birth defects and living close to landfill sites.

'End to scaremongering'

But he said the study's authors were clear the link they reported did not show a causal relationship, "and the current review reflects this".

The report's findings include:

  • burning municipal solid waste accounts for less than 1% of UK emissions of dioxins, while domestic sources such as cooking and burning coal for heating account for 18%
  • less than 1% of UK emissions of oxides of nitrogen, which reduce air quality, come from municipal solid waste management, while 42% come from road traffic
  • in some areas there has been less work and the science is less certain, including emissions to soil and water rather than air, and releases from forms of waste management other than landfill, such as composting.
The report found no evidence of a link between the rates of cancer, respiratory diseases and birth defects and the current generation of incinerators, nor any "convincing" evidence that emissions from modern landfill sites harm health.

Tim Brown, of the National Society for Clean Air, was welcoming, saying: "We hope the report will put an end to scaremongering over the health impacts of waste management facilities like incineration."

But Anna Watson, of Friends of the Earth, said: "This report fails to adequately consider the environmental benefits of recycling, or the wider global environmental impacts of the way we manage our waste, and must not be used as a green light for increased incineration."

The BBC's Tom Heap
"Recycled food becomes renewable fuel"

Poor areas 'have more pollution'
14 Jan 04  |  Health
Row over incinerator health risks
19 Jun 01  |  Science/Nature

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