Incinerators ‘contribute little’ to particle emissions

Results from part of a Public Health England-funded study into the impacts of municipal waste incinerators in the UK have shown “no evidence” of incinerator emissions around four facilities.

Veolia's Sheffield EfW plant was looked at in the study

Veolia’s Sheffield EfW plant was looked at in the study

And, while metal emissions were detected within 10km of two other facilities in Wolverhampton and Stockton-on-Tees, these were found to contribute ‘very little’ to local particulate matter pollution levels in comparison to other sources, such as road traffic.

Published in the journal Atmospheric Environment*, the research focused on analysis of metal particle emissions — a primary emission from waste incinerators — including: arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, nickel, vanadium and mercury.

The aim of the paper was to determine the proportion of these emissions attributable to waste incineration within 10km of six facilities: the Wolverhampton Civic Incinerator; Dudley’s Lister Road incinerator; Suez Environnement’s Stockton-on-Tees EfW; the former HLC Crymlyn Burrows incinerator near Swansea; Veolia’s Sheffield EfW and; SELCHP plant in Lewisham.

The findings will form part of an as-yet-unpublished overall report into the potential health impacts of UK municipal waste incinerators, which was first announced in January 2012 by what was then called the Health Protection Agency, but has since been split between Public Health England (PHE) and the Scottish Government (see story).


Using stack emission samples of heavy metals from the incinerators, researchers were able to ‘fingerprint’ incinerator emissions from other background sources, with ratios found to be ‘consistent with emissions from burning electronic waste, mixed paper and plastics, and batteries — materials all expected to be found in municipal waste’.

municipal waste incinerator graphic

Graphic from the Public Health England and Scottish Government-funded research paper, published in Atmosperic Environment

Led by scientists from Imperial College London, King’s College London and the National Physical Laboratory, the study paper considered emissions measurements in the areas over periods ranging from 2 to 5.5 years and also took into account the possible impacts of meteorological conditions.

All the waste incinerators studied used the same abatement techniques to cutting emissions, including the injection of activated carbon to capture mercury and the use of bag filters to remove particulates.

And, overall, no particle pollution was found from four incinerators, while emissions from the remaining two facilities were found to be at levels around 1/100th and 1/1,000th of the particle pollution from other sources.

In London, for example, the ambient particle detection site ‘identified that traffic was the main source of metals in central London’.

The study concludes:

‘From our analysis we found no evidence of incinerator emissions in ambient metal concentrations around four UK MWIs [municipal waste incinerators]. The six UK MWIs studied contributed little to ambient PM10 [particulate matter] concentrations.’

The paper also notes that emissions of heavy metals from incinerators are expected to decrease in future due to new limits placed on the use of hazardous substances in electronic equipment in the EU Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, which came into force in January 2013.

Final report

Other research papers forming part of the final PHE and Scottish Government-funded report into UK waste incinerators are also looking at the potential link between incinerator emissions and health outcomes such as low birth weight, still births and infant deaths.

Originally earmarked for publication in March 2014, the final report has faced several postponements due to “unanticipated complexity in gathering data” reportedly caused by having to enter emissions data into an electronic format manually before statistical analysis could begin, which has led to claims from some environmental groups of a ‘cover up’ (see story).

The report was commissioned in response to public concern over possible health impacts from waste incinerators, but as it stands, PHE’s position remains that “well run and regulated modern municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health”.

In total, areas of up to 15km surrounding all 22 UK waste incinerators in operation between 2003 and 2010 will be looked at in the overall report, including: Grundon’s Lakeside energy-from-waste facility; the LondonWaste Edmonton incinerator and; the Dundee Energy Recycling Ltd waste incinerator in Baldovie, Scotland.

The studies are being funded by Public Health England, the Scottish Government and the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health, with research led by scientists from Imperial College London and King’s College London.

*Atmospheric Environment, Volume 113, July 2015, Elsevier.


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8 years ago

These findings seem at variance with the findings by Xray spectroscopy outlned here:

characterisation of elemental contents in PM2.5 in a medium-sized
Swedish city dominated by a modern waste incineration plant†
Innocent Joy Kwame Aboh1,‡,
Dag Henriksson1,*,
Jens Laursen2,
Magnus Lundin1,
Niels Pind3,
Eva Selin Lindgren1 and
Tomas Wahnström1

Mark Broomfield
Mark Broomfield
8 years ago
Reply to  smogbad

Smogbad – the findings of the Aboh (2007) study have been widely misinterpreted. It does not demonstrate that the incinerator dominated ambient levels of metals in the city of Boras. The identification of incineration as the source of pollutants was no more than a tentative indication based on an assumed emissions profile. The study technique could not uniquely identify the incinerator as a source of PM2.5, and conclusions were limited to a finding that identification of some point sources might be possible.
The paper by Font et al (2015) described above is much more authoritative, and consistent with e.g. Buonanno et al., 2010, and Morishita et al. (2011a and 2011b). These papers all show a slight contribution to environmental levels of released substances – which is what I’d expect to find based on emissions data and dispersion modelling.
I’m all in favour of a strong challenge to incineration to make sure that we make the best use of our resources, but this is not the right argument.

9 years ago

I would still encourage a complete recycling program of everything from households, including letting the wood rot. Burning to deal with waste is ultimately too easy and somehow lacks respect.

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