There appears to be potentially misleading statements on both sides – exaggerating the dangers and the safety of incinerators – among the many sources available on the internet, and in statements by various individuals and groups.
Dr van Steenis is a retired doctor and probably the best known opponent of incinerators, having investigated their effects for over a decade. He tours the country warning about their dangers and spoke at a public meeting organised by Hatfield Against Incineration held at the St John's Youth and Community Centre in Hatfield on 23 November 2009.
Among the health risks he warned of were:
lower birth rates
asthma and other respiratory ailments
heart disease and other complications (including shortened attention spans).
Michael Ryan, a researcher looking at the Edmonton incinerator, is reported as saying he has gathered evidence from across the country that areas situated where toxic emissions start to fall to the ground have a high rate of child deaths.
As to where exactly they fall to ground is anyone's guess – New Barnfield is on a hill, so even with a short chimney stack the dispersal area still could be huge, and Hatfield is surrounded by farmland so any contaminants released, no matter how inadvertently, could enter the food chain and travel even further.
On their website the US Environmental Protection Agency reveals that "Fine particles can remain suspended in the air and travel long distances with the wind. For example, over 20 percent of the particles that form haze in the Rocky Mountains National Park have been estimated to come from hundreds of miles away."
Dr van Steenis also claimed that incineration was a more costly method of disposing of waste and that there were better alternatives – a view that seems to be shared by Friends of the Earth and other environmentalists.
Campaigning against a proposed incinerator in Oxfordshire in 2008, Dr van Steenis cited a Belgian university study that showed a 12-year reduction in life expectancy, increase in heart attacks, cancers and impact on children's mental development (he also mentioned that incinerators tend to be sited in poorer areas).
People in favour of incineration, including members of the Oxfordshire County Council, have countered with accusations of scaremongering; that the claims and research are outdated as modern incinerators don't have the same issues and point to various studies to support their view.
In 2001, an environmental group, National Society for Clean Air, claimed a study found that the health risks from incinerators appeared to be negligible (the actual study was carried out by the Institute of European Environmental Policy). Friends of the Earth hotly disputed their findings and claimed the research was poorly written, unreferenced, grossly misleading...and funded by incinerator companies and pro-incinerator local authorities.
In 2003, researchers from Newcastle University reportedly found mothers living near these types of facilities have a higher risk of having a baby with spina bifida or a heart defect.
The claims and counterclaims make it hard to get an objective view (and muddying the waters is an established public relations / political tactic). Indeed, the whole thing seems similar to the case against smoking. The first article about tobacco leading to cancer appeared in the 1950s. However, the companies involved used a number of tactics – like long, drawn out legal actions (perhaps with the hope of the other side running out of funds or life), and funding rival studies to prevent action being taken sooner – and, most vile of all, suppressing their own research when it showed that smoking was harmful. In effect, they slowly and painfully murdered people on a global scale for profit. And governments around the world failed to stop them for decades.
Looking at government sources like the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the UK Health Protection Agency (HPA) there seems to be a lack of research in some of the areas of concern, although they both generally considered 'well-managed' incinerators to pose little danger. But do say they can't be certain.
However, Dr van Steenis does not have a particularly favourable view of the HPA, and given the failure of governments to act for decades in the case of tobacco it is hardly sufficient reassurance. There also has been a catalogue of incidents with incinerators over the years.