The scandal surrounding the dumping of toxic incinerator ash on Newcastle allotments and footpaths, could be just the tip of a toxic iceberg, Greenpeace warned today. It has emerged that incinerators across Britain may have been breaking the law by avoiding the cost of disposing of this toxic ash in special hazardous waste landfills by selling it to be "recycled" it into building projects. Edmonton in North London, the UK's biggest rubbish burner has until recently been using the hazardous ash in public road projects and domestic waste tips. Greenpeace is writing to all incinerator operators and the Environment Agency, which is responsible for regulating incineration, to ask how widespread this practice of ash disposal is and exactly where in the UK contaminated ash has been spread.
Greenpeace Toxics campaigner Mark Strutt said,
"It is dangerous and irresponsible to dispose of hazardous ash like this leaving a toxic heritage for future generations. There are no safe levels for many of these chemicals whether they are released as chimney gases or end up ash. Byker and the other 12 incinerators should be shut for good and the Government should cancel its plans to build any more."
The 13 incinerators in the UK create more than a million tonnes of ash a year. Ash from the pollution filter systems of household rubbish incinerators known as 'fly ash' is classified as hazardous waste and must be disposed of in special landfill sites. This fly ash is contaminated with extremely high concentrations of heavy metals and toxic compounds like dioxins, linked to cancer and other health problems. In May of last year, following Newcastle's Byker ash scandal, public health officials banned children from nearby allotments and warned people not to eat eggs and chickens produced there.
The official report into the effects of spreading contaminated ash from the Byker incinerator on local allotments and public footpaths in Newcastle came out last night (12/01/01). Local people have already condemned the report as inadequate. An independent report commissioned by residents said the "contamination of allotments in Newcastle by high levels of dioxins and heavy metals from Byker incinerator could be one of the most serious dioxin contamination events in the UK".
Since 1998, waste companies have been using less hazardous 'bottom ash' collected in incinerator grates and selling it to be mixed with asphalt or concrete and used in building projects. Both Byker and Edmonton incinerators have been illegally mixing this bottom ash with the more toxic fly ash from the pollution filters.
Environment Agency officials were questioned before a House of Commons inquiry in November of last year, as to whether incinerators other than Byker had been mixing the ash. It emerged that there were believed to be others and Edmonton was confirmed as having done so just days before the enquiry. (1)
There are currently 13 municipal waste incinerators in the UK, of which Edmonton is the biggest. Thirty-three new ones are under construction or in various stages of planning. The Environment Agency is still talking in terms of a hundred or more being built. The many toxic pollutants contained in the stack gases and ashes produced by all incinerators will threaten the health and quality of life of millions of people. In August last year, research found that between 1974 and 1987, children who had lived within 5km of incinerators were twice as likely to die of cancer. (2)
In a House of Lords enquiry on 14th April 1999, Environment Minister Michael Meacher said,
"Incinerator plants are the source of serious toxic pollutants: dioxins; furans; acid gases; particulates; heavy metals; and they all need to be treated very seriously. There must be absolute prioritisation given to human health requirements and protection of the environment. I repeat the emissions from incinerator processes are extremely toxic. Some of the emissions are carcinogenic We must use every reasonable instrument to eliminate them altogether".
Mark Strutt added,
"Byker and Edmonton could be just the tip of the toxic iceberg. This clandestine mixing of highly toxic ash is only one of the many problems burning rubbish creates. The tragedy is that there is no need to be creating toxic gases and ashes. Recycling and composting cuts the amount of rubbish in landfill more effectively than burning it, as well creating jobs and improving our environment."
Notes to editors
(1) Dr Paul Leinster, Environment Agency, Evidence to House of Commons Select Committee, Tuesday 28th November 2000
(2) Knox E.G. (2000) Childhood cancers, birthplaces, incinerators and landfill sites. International Journal of Epidemiology 29:391-397
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