Civil society victory for protecting community health

06 July 2001 - Considering the dangers faced by communities as a result of medical waste incineration and the fact that there has been increasing public opposition to incinerators, groundWork together with the Environmental Justice Networking Forum (EJNF), Wildlife and Environment Society of SA (WESSA) and Earthlife Africa commend Compass Waste Services for selecting autoclaving above incineration for their proposed medical waste facility. At a meeting held at Hage Hall in Hillcrest yesterday, Compass Waste announced that it was proposing to develop a large autoclaving facility to treat medical waste generated in KwaZulu-Natal. Compass Waste said they had chosen autoclaving because it was far less polluting than incineration.

The trend worldwide away from incineration is well documented. Statistics show that in the U.S.A alone, at least 280 incinerator proposals were abandoned between 1985 and 1988 due to public opposition. In Australia, in the past 10-15 years every attempt to site a hazardous waste incinerator has failed, due to public opposition.

This bold move by Compass Waste to consider autoclaving is a sign that companies are noting South African civil society’s real concerns about the health and environmental hazards posed by incinerators (see attachment).

Autoclaving is a common process which uses steam to sterilise and disinfect contaminated materials. If hospital waste is properly segregated before autoclaving, no harmful emissions will result from the process.

A spokesperson for groundWork, Llewellyn Leonard, has commended both the government and industry in shifting towards alternative technology. “We have to make people’s constitutional right to live in a clean and safe environment a priority, and this shift by government and industry is giving meaning to this constitutional right,” he said.

According to EJNF, this move will no doubt protect community health since autoclaving reducers health threatening pollutants that would be released into the environment by an incinerator. “There is not one hospital incinerator in KwaZulu-Natal that is able to meet environmental requirements due to government’s failure to monitor and enforce laws governing incineration,” said Zanele Mngoma, provincial coordinator of EJNF.

Enver Domingo, a member and advisor to WESSA on medical waste, who spent many years in Canada as a medical safety officer at Toronto hospital, advised WESSA that this move would prevent the contamination of the environment by harmful pollutants such as dioxins, furans, metals and acidic gases which would normally be emitted by an incinerator.

“These emissions have serious adverse consequences on worker safety, public health and the environment, as was has been indicated in the recent Greenpeace report titled - Incineration and Human Health - State of knowledge of the Impacts of Waste Incinerators on Human Health,” said WESSA’s spokesperson Di Dold.

Over 200 studies conducted worldwide have shown links between incineration and serious health impacts, including mortality from various cancers. Research has demonstrated that populations residing near incinerators are exposed to chemicals through inhalation of contaminated air or by the consumption of contaminated agricultural produce from the local area. Some of the emitted chemicals have been proven to cause cancer in humans. It is a proven fact that iincinerators do not make waste disappear; they reduce it to ash and to atmospheric emissions, both of which are potentially hazardous.

“Earthlife Africa (Durban) urges all other provincial governments and the national government to commence to set in place monitoring systems for such technologies”, urges Bryan Ashe, of Earthlife Africa Durban.

It is hoped, therefore, that other industries and provinces will follow the example set by Compass Waste Services and the KZN government in their consideration of autoclaving.

It should however be noted that Compass Waste currently operates a medical waste incinerator in Ixopo that is failing to meet several of the health and safety requirements set down by government.

Contact Llewellyn Leonard on: 033 3425662 or 0823535029 or



1. Air Pollution

All types of incinerators, no matter how expensive, cause some air pollution. One incinerator can release as many as 190 different chemicals into the air. Many of these chemicals are very dangerous to our health. These chemicals include dioxins and furans, which can cause cancer.

There are many ways to reduce the amount of pollution coming out of incinerators, but there is no way to stop all the pollution.

2. Incineration is dangerous to human health

Studies have shown that incinerator workers and people who live near to incinerator have more health problems. Many highly toxic substances emitted from waste incinerators (including dioxins, furans, cadmium, lead and mercury) are known to disrupt the body’s hormonal (endocrine), immune and reproductive systems as well as cause cancers. These chemicals can enter our bodies when we breathe in polluted air, or when we eat food that has been contaminated. For example: these chemicals can settle on grass, which is eaten by cows. When we drink the cows’ milk or eat beef, these chemicals enter our bodies.

3.Incinerators produce dangerous ash

Fly ash, collected by the incinerator’s air filter system, and bottom ash collected in the furnace are more toxic then the original waste which went into the incinerator. This is because new substances such as dioxins, furans and heavy metals are created during the process of incinerating waste. Thus incinerator ash must be safely disposed of on a hazardous landfill site.

4. Incineration does not encourage waste reduction

Incinerators require a minimum amount of waste to be delivered each day in order to remain operational. This is a deterrent to waste minimisation.

5. Incinerators do not make economic sense

Incinerators are extremely expensive to install and run. Incinerators provide little employment opportunities for the large capital investment needed. Much local public money leaves the community and is paid into the hands of large private sector and or multi-national companies to operate the incinerators. In contrast with incineration, separating and recycling waste provide opportunities for employment of local people, and money so spent remains in the community

6. Most incinerators are situated in poor areas

In SA and many other countries incinerators are located in low income communities or communities of colour. This is because incinerators are polluting. This is called environmental racism.