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Claims incinerators are linked to infant deaths

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A father who suffered the loss of two infant grandchildren is fighting to prevent the rebuilding of a waste incinerator that he believes may have played a role in their deaths.

The North London Waste Authority has permission to update the Edmonton EcoPark, which opened in 1969. Following reconstruction, the municipal facility will have the capacity to incinerate annually up to 700,000 tonnes of waste, a 40 per cent increase.

Trevor Calver’s youngest grandson, aged 15 months, died in 2004. He suffered a second tragedy in 2017 when another daughter lost an infant baby under a week old.

There are 625 wards in London. Between 2002 and 2013 the five wards with the highest infant percentage death rates included Chingford Green and Walley in Waltham Forest, where Calver’s two grandchildren were from.

Concerned and disturbed

“I became concerned about the incinerator many years ago when I listened to a speaker at a local community meeting. I attended a site visit designed to show how it protected the environment and I was disturbed when I witnessed a tyre being burnt,” said Calver, who lives in Chingford, adding that residents often have their cars covered in ash.

“If we can see such deposits then imagine what damage the smaller particles produced by the incinerator can do to people, especially infants.”

Calver has sought without success to get his GP practice to map out where their patients live alongside the ailments they are suffering. He would also like to see statistics released on children’s use of asthma pumps in schools.

Calver’s concerns were heightened when he found out last year about research by Michael Ryan suggesting that infant mortality rates downwind of incinerators
are above average.

Above average child deaths

Ryan began researching municipal waste incinerators after he lost two children, one at 14 weeks in 1985, causing him to consider if their deaths could be related to pollution caused by living near to the Shrewsbury Hospital incinerator.

Ryan spent a substantial sum obtaining Office for National Statistics (ONS) infant death figures at ward levels across England and Wales. He found that infant mortality levels were above average where incinerators were sited but his attempts to get public authorities to take notice were not well received. They argued that smoking and maternal deprivation, caused by poverty, were to blame.

But when Ryan then analysed the figures for the Chingford Green area of wealthy Waltham Forest, close to Britain’s then largest incinerator in Edmonton, he discovered that it had the second highest child death rate in London.

Further analysis confirmed that infant mortality levels downwind of incinerators are above average whether they are in affluent areas or poorer areas.

Ryan’s work, extensively reported in Big Issue North, was used by MPs to ask parliamentary questions. This pushed Public Health England (PHE) to conduct a study into the impact of waste incinerators on infant mortality levels. This was promised in 2003, began in 2011 and came out in 2020, six years behind schedule.

The research, which ignored Ryan’s work and was undertaken by the Small Area Health Statistics Unit at Imperial College, London, agreed with PHE’s claim that “modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health”.

PHE adjusted the data for deprivation, ethnicity and socioeconomic status before reaching its conclusions. Ryan believes the study was thus flawed and queries why the researchers did not examine statistics where waste incinerators have opened in the last decade.

New incinerators

Newhaven incinerator opened in 2012. Downwind of it is Lewes and Eastbourne, where infant mortality rates in 2013 were zero and 1.1 per 1,000 live births. In 2019, when infant mortality rates for England and Wales were 4 per 1,000 live births, the figures in Eastbourne and Lewes had risen to 8.7 and 7.9. This corresponds to six infant deaths.

Across the country there have been many local campaigns against the construction of new incinerators. In seeking to reduce landfill, councils are increasingly incinerating waste for energy generation, with 11.45 million tonnes burnt in 2019-20, compared with 4.9 million tonnes in 2011-12. There are more than 90 plants across the UK, with 22 constructed in the last decade. Another 50-plus are approved or proposed.

NLWA is under pressure to reconsider its plan and campaigners, which include London Against Incineration, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, have the backing of local MP Iain Duncan Smith. Considerable anger has been directed towards the Waltham Forest deputy council leader Clyde Loakes, who leads on environmental, climate and transport policies, including a multi award-winning scheme that improved the borough’s active travel infrastructure.

Loakes has chaired the NLWA for over 13 years. He is a non-executive director at London Energy Ltd, which manages the site at Edmonton and is owned by NLWA, and draws an annual allowance of £13,285.

Neither he nor other Waltham Forest councillors Jemma Hemsted, Tim James and Emma Best replied to questions from Big Issue North.

An NLWA spokesperson said: “The new facility has been designed according to population forecasts and future waste volumes.”

They added that once operating “it will generate electricity to power 127,000 homes and support a district heating network that will provide heat and hot water for up to 50,000 homes. This will save the need for gas boilers and displace power plants that use virgin fossil fuels.”

NLWA claimed that the new facility will use the world’s most advanced cleaning technology and that none of the 21 other energy-from-waste facilities in the UK given planning permission since 2017 are investing in such advanced technology.

According to the spokesperson: “The technology is so effective that concentrations of pollutants at ground level are expected to be effectively zero for most of the year.”

With regard to Ryan’s research, the authority claimed: “It is difficult to assess his claims as they are not published in full by a science-based organisation or in a peer-reviewed journal… We are following scientific evidence from health experts and academics from not just PHE and Imperial College but also the Air Quality Expert Group, the Institute of Occupational Medicine, and Birmingham University, all of whom have concluded that modern and well-run facilities do not pose a significant risk to public health.”

Photo: proposals to expand Edmonton Incinerator are being resisted locally (Andrew Drysdale/Shutterstock)

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