The Health Effects of Incinerators

Written by mike charmaine
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The Health Effects of Incinerators
A view of an incinerator chimney (pipe image by John Sandoy from

The main purpose of an incinerator is to reduce all kinds of waste deposits into ash, flue gases, and particulates. An incinerator is constructed of heavy, well-protected materials that prevent extreme amounts of heat from escaping into the external environment. Raw incinerator emissions contain pollutants and therefore should be mechanically or elecrostatically "scrubbed" before passing into the atmosphere. However, some incinerators do not include abating of emissions to remove hazardous substances before or after combustion. These inadequate gas cleaning and combustion practices pose health threat to the plant workers, local public, and the surrounding environment.

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Health Effects of Particulate Matter

Emissions that result from waste treatment by incinerators include persistent toxic and bioaccumulative substances such as particulate matter, dioxins and heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium. Particulate matter is a complex mixture of both inorganic and organic particulates trapped in the air. They may be present in solid, liquid or both forms and are considered to be the primary disease- causing incinerator emission. Particulate matter is associated with high rates of lung cancer incidence as well as an increased mortality rate (especially related to heart diseases). These fine particulates may carry other toxins that are adsorbed to them and enter the respiratory tract. Also, particulates pose a severe risk of respiratory diseases and death in infants under the age of one year. They can hamper the development of lung function, aggravate asthma and cause bronchitis in children.

Health Effects of Dioxins

Air pollutants such as dioxins (i.e. any of several persistent toxic heterocyclic hydrocarbons) that the incineration process can produce are very persistent in nature. They settle on the surrounding vegetation, soil and water bodies, thereby entering the food chain. The food might travel not only to the local markets but may also disperse over greater distances. Thus, both the nearby as well as the distant populations can be affected by these pollutants. Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxin can lead to severe respiratory problems; long-term exposure results in impairment of the immune system, nervous system, reproductive functions and endocrine system.

Health Effects of Heavy Metals

Incineration emits some heavy metals (i.e. nickel, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, lead, arsenic and chromium) that cause a range of serious harmful health effects. Over a period of time, these heavy toxins accumulate in the bodies of humans. Childhood problems may include autism, allergies, dyslexia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), impulsive behaviour, lowered IQ levels and learning problems. In adults, dementia, violent attitude and depression are often attributed to exposure to heavy metals.

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