Metro Vancouver's existing waste-to-energy plan in south Burnaby.

Waste incineration health risks to be probed

Medical officers would direct site-specific study for any Metro proposal

Public health officers will take a hard look at any health risks posed if Metro Vancouver builds a new garbage incinerator.

B.C. chief medical health officer Dr. Perry Kendall supports the planned public health impact assessment even though he personally doubts a modern waste-to-energy plant would pose a significant threat to the public.

“Concerns have been expressed,” he said, adding it’s “useful, necessary and good practice” to study the issue.

The work would be directed and reviewed by Fraser Health chief medical health officer Dr. Paul van Buynder and Vancouver Coastal chief medical health officer Dr. Patricia Daly.

They’d examine the possible health impacts of any new waste-to-energy plant once a detailed proposal is made for a specific site, based on the technology and pollution control specifications to be used. Actual research would be done by consultants hired by Metro.

The Fraser Valley Regional District opposes an in-region waste-to-energy plant – which Metro Vancouver can pursue now that the province has approved its solid waste management plan.

Critics fear air pollution from an incinerator would worsen smog in the Valley and that burning garbage will increase public exposure to toxins like dioxins, metals and nanoparticles.

Kendall says waste incineration was “problematic” in the past but risks are now likely minimal if done to modern standards.

Metro previously projected the net impact on air quality of a new mass-burn incinerator would be insignificant, largely because it would also heat and power nearby buildings, avoiding other fossil fuel emissions.

“When you have minimal emissions, you can expect to have minimal impact on the health of the population to be affected,” Kendall said.

Other sources of air pollution in the region likely have much more significant local impacts than garbage incineration, he added.

Lower Mainland population growth means there are more cars and homes burning fuel every year.

Kendall also points to open burning allowed in the Fraser Valley and emissions from farm livestock that contribute to smog.

The B.C. Centre For Disease Control’s environmental health division, which is conducting a broad review of the risks from waste incineration, will assist the health authorities in determining how to examine specific proposals for new plants.

The potential impacts depend greatly on where a waste-to-energy plant is built and  how it’s designed, according to Dr. Tom Kosatsky, the division’s medical health director.

He suggested airborne toxics released by a new plant – and the proximity of those emissions to local residents – may merit the closest scrutiny.

Even so, he said, toxics are unlikely to be a significant threat large distances downwind and modern pollution scrubbing should deliver lower emissions.

“The best available evidence for the mass-burn incinerators is that emissions are going to be relatively low compared to other emissions of the same things from other sources,” Kosatsky said.

The research is expected to look at not just direct air pollution impacts, but potential indirect exposure through possible contamination of gardens, food crops, livestock and ground water.

Kosatsky said the research should look at how far garbage has to be hauled around the region and the resulting emissions from trucks.

He suggested sprawl, population growth, more highway construction and increased traffic together may have more influence on air quality than any new waste-to-energy plant.

As for nanoparticles – ultrafine particulate that some experts say are virtually undetectable and may pose as-yet-unknown hazards to people – Kosatsky said they should be carefully studied.

It may be possible to engineer the smoke stacks to minimize their release, he said.

But Kosatsky also noted incinerators aren’t the only source of nanoparticles, which also are present in car exhaust and many household products.

“Use a deodorant and you get them. Or perfume.”

Dr. Nadine Loewen, a medical health officer at Fraser Health, said there are no plans to test for health impacts linked to the existing Metro incinerator in south Burnaby, which burns 280,000 tonnes of garbage a year.

The challenge, she said, is that there isn’t good baseline data prior to the plant’s construction 23 years ago against which to compare any new tests and assess population health changes.

Fraser Health has no health concerns about the existing plant, she added.

Limited soil and plant tests in the two years after the incinerator opened found some elevated levels of metals like cadmium at sites in Richmond, North Delta and Burnaby, but researchers concluded the readings were within regulatory levels and there was no proven link to the Metro plant.

Federal pollution records show the Burnaby incinerator is not the biggest local point source of airborne toxics. Two local cement plants both emit more mercury and far higher levels of dioxin.

Kendall said he didn’t advise Environment Minister Terry Lake ahead of the province’s approve of Metro’s waste plan, nor was he aware of any other provincial government-led research on health risks from incineration.

No sites have been proposed for the new incinerator but there are indications Surrey, New Westminster, North Vancouver City and the Tsawwassen First Nation may be interested in hosting it.

A formal proposal triggering the detailed health risk review could be 18 months away, after an expected Metro call for bids in 2012.