World Environment Day - New Report Links Incinerators To Cancers And Other Health Impacts

05 June 2001 - When you were last in hospital did you give a moment’s thought to where your medial waste would end? Have you considered that the very people tasked with improving your health, the medical sector, by burning medical waste, are possibly responsible for several of the diseases and cancers suffered by you and your family? Or that the glass of milk you drank this morning could give you cancer?

On this the 5th of June, World Environment Day, groundWork joins with Greenpeace International to release an explosive new report showing links between waste incinerators and mortality due to various cancers, as well as a higher incidence of lung disease, sarcoma, congenital malformations and immune system depression.

The report is entitled Incineration and Human Health - State of knowledge of the Impacts of Waste Incinerators on Human Health.

The book consolidates over 300 studies and research papers that have focused on the impacts of incineration on human health. The book looks both at studies conducted on incinerator workers, as well as on population living adjacent to incinerators. The evidence is shocking.

According to the report, incinerator workers are more likely to die from lung cancer, gastric cancer, oesophageal cancer and heart disease than average members of the population. In addition they are more likely to suffer from chloracne, decreased liver function and increased allergy. People living in the vicinity of incinerators have an increased chance of dying from lung cancer and liver cancer. In addition they are more likely to suffer from soft tissue sarcoma, respiratory problems, lung disease, bronchitis, cancer of the larynx, spina bifida, congenital malformations among new borns and altered sex ratio of new borns. (See attached 3 pages for tables extracted from the Greenpeace report.)

The report identifies more than 190 chemicals that are released from incinerators. The most toxic of these are dioxins, furans, mercury and lead. Dioxins and furans are two of the “dirty dozen” chemicals targeted in a new United Nations Convention for elimination.

The SA government estimates that there over 300 incinerators in South Africa, although only about 50% of these are government’s books. The majority of incinerators in SA are medical waste incinerators, and the remainders are industrial incinerators, hazardous waste and veterinary.

According to a 1999 government report,[1] “most incineration facilities for medical and other wastes cannot meet the required emission standards and therefore have an unacceptable impact on human health and the environment”. The same report stated that there was an “urgent need” to draw up emission standards for incinerators and to close down inefficient incinerators. To date neither of these “urgent needs” has been addressed. groundWork knows of only one incinerator which has been shut down in the last couple of years, and this was largely due to pressure placed upon government by civil society.

While many of these incinerators are located in industrial areas or poorer communities, several are located in upper income areas. For example, the Hillcrest Hospital operates their own incinerators on site. However, according to government records, this incinerator is not registered.

A large number of incinerators are also located in rural areas and/or adjacent to farms. For example the largest incinerator in KwaZulu-Natal is located in Ixopo, which is the heart of dairy country. There have been several scares internationally about dairy products and beef being contaminated by dioxins from incinerators. There is every reason to believe that dairy products originating from the Ixopo area are highly contaminated with cancer-causing dioxins.

groundWork will this week be sending copies of this report to Minister Moosa and other officials in the government, calling for a moratorium on all new incinerator projects, the phasing out of existing incinerators and the active investigation and implementation of alternative technologies.

The report also addresses the misconception that incinerators reduce waste volumes. It argues that the combined outputs of all air emissions, ash, and wastewater exceed the initial waste inputs. More importantly these outputs are more often far more toxic then the original waste fed into the incinerator.

This report can be downloaded from the Greenpeace International web page ( or can be obtained from groundWork.

[1] National Waste Management Strategies and Action Plans South Africa, Action Plan for Waste Treatment and Disposal, 15 October 1999, Ref No. Reports\Formal\4.1.22\AP Treatment & Disposal.