Environment Agency has failed London on incinerator permit

With a decision still awaited from the Mayor of London on Viridor’s plans to build a waste-burning incinerator at Beddington Lane, MICHAEL RYAN suggests that the scheme relies on a lack of due diligence by government agencies over the real threat to the health of generations of Londoners

Saying that a waste-burning incinerator won’t harm health is easy. Proving it is impossible.

The incinerator at South Bermondsey: since it began operating in the 1990s, infant death rates in areas "downwind" of the plant have increased notably

The incinerator at South Bermondsey: since it began operating in the 1990s, infant death rates in areas “downwind” of the plant have increased notably

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows high infant mortality rates in  those areas exposed to incinerator emissions.

I’ve mapped infant mortality rates in electoral wards around many incinerators and at least three newspapers have printed the maps (the Dorking Advertiser and the Surrey Mirror, both in Jan 2008, and the Stroud News and Journal, in January 2012).

The only challenge came when the Dorking Advertiser allowed a “right of reply” article to the incinerator company, under the headline: “If it was dangerous it wouldn’t be allowed, say incinerator bosses”, which shows the lack of scientific rigour towards safety in Britain and contempt for the well-being of those exposed to emissions.

Places with high infant mortality rates will also have high rates of a range of illnesses. The premature death rate at all ages will also be high.

Many countries regard infant mortality rates as an accurate indicator of the general health and well-being of a community. But here in Britain, public health experts have been asleep on the incinerator issue and the Environment Agency’s issuing of permits, such as that to Viridor for the Beddington Lane incinerator, gives the false impression that there will be no harm to health.

“Our role is to ensure the site will operate in accordance with UK and European legislation and that it would not cause harm to human health or the local environment,” the agency said in a report in the Sutton Guardian just last month.

The SELCHP, or South East London Combined Heat and Power “energy recovery facility”,  at South Bermondsey has been burning rubbish in a built-up area of the capital for nearly 20 years. In 2007, the local newspaper, the South London Press, reported my research on the infant mortality rates from 2003 to 2005 in the 625 electoral wards in London.

Under the headline “Health risk: Worries of more heart disease and infant deaths found near incinerators”, the newspaper reported that the Office for National Statistics’ figures “show that, in wards north-east of SELCHP, infant deaths are 7.1 per 1,000, compared with 0.9 per 1,000 south of the plant”.

Such a benign, sunny logo, for a rubbish-burning incinerator plant

Such a benign, sunny logo, for a rubbish-burning incinerator plant

The article went on: “Dr Frederica Perera, professor at New York’s Columbia University and director of Columbia Centre for Children’s Environmental Health, said: ‘Many studies, including our own, have found that in utero or childhood exposures to PM2.5 particles, or pollutants in the particles, are associated with adverse respiratory health and neuro development in children, and may increase the risk of cancers later on in life.’

“But Chris Smith, of the Government’s Environmental Protection Directorate, said no permit would be issued to an incinerator operator if a health risk was likely.”

In 2004, a study of infant deaths around 63 municipal incinerators in Japan concluded: “Our study shows a peak-decline in risk with distance from the municipal solid waste incinerators for infant deaths and infant deaths with all congenital malformations combined.”

So there is plenty of evidence out there of the harm that can be done, even to unborn children whose mothers happen to live in an area affected by the pollution from an incinerator. Yet six years after saying that his agency would refuse a permit to an incinerator “if a health risk was likely”, Chris, now Lord Smith of Finsbury, and chairman of the Environment Agency, has granted a permit to an incinerator to operate at Beddington Lane.

Ten years ago, another public body, the Health Protection Agency, was making promises about protecting public health over emissions which it has failed to keep: “The HPA will also investigate public concern about the possible effects of long-term exposure to chemicals, such as those emitted from landfills, incinerators and industrial sites,” the BBC reported at that time.

Dr Pat Troop, the HPA’s chief executive at that time, told the BBC: “We are not saying there is a problem. We are saying we are looking carefully to see if there is a problem or there isn’t a problem.

“The public is concerned about many of these issues and it is important that we don’t ignore it if there is a problem.”

The evidence for the Environment Agency and Health Protection Agency keeps coming, and from much closer to home. In May 2010, the Great London Authority published a map which shows a swathe of London wards with high infant mortality rates between 2002 and 2008.

These wards have at least 7.0 deaths per 1,000 live births, and are downwind of the SELCHP incinerator in Bermondsey. They start with Bromley-by-Bow (Tower Hamlets), include eight Newham wards, five in Redbridge, and two in Barking and Dagenham.

There was a total of 227 infant deaths in the affected wards during that seven-year period, with the wards having an average infant mortality rate of 8.1 per 1,000 live births.

Exposure to combustion emissions from industrial and domestic sources has been known to be linked to infant deaths for many years. Britain saw a sharp fall in infant deaths after the switch to “cleaner” North Sea Gas: “At national level in England and Wales, infant mortality rates fell rapidly from the early 1970s and into the 1980s.”

There’s a belief that low socio-economic status is responsible for high rates of infant mortality. Yet is it just a “coincidence” that previously falling infant mortality trends in Tower Hamlets, Newham and Lewisham have suddenly been reversed when they have been exposed to emissions following the start of operations by the Bermondsey incinerator?


The infant death rates for all London boroughs from 1970-2010 was released by ONS in December 2012 and used to prepare the above graph.

Those in Croydon, and other parts of London affected by the Beddington Lane incinerator, should know how cheaply their health and that of future generations is regarded.

  • Michael Ryan is a retired chartered civil engineer who has in the past worked for the Environment Agency. He has been researching public health data for more than a decade
  • Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough – 262,183 page views (Jan-Jun 2013)
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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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1 Response to Environment Agency has failed London on incinerator permit

  1. The Environment Agency has made a number of failures during the issuing of permits – this is largely down to lack of staff training and lack of oversight from senior management. I have expressed these concerns over at http://www.insidetheenvironmentagency.co.uk

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