Health effects of waste management

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The text on this page is taken from an equivalent page of the IEHIAS-project.

The potential environmental health impacts of waste management of municipal solid waste (MSW) are poorly understood, especially when the different aspects of the full chain process (waste production, collection, transport, recycling, treatment, disposal) are taken into consideration.

To evaluate these impacts, a prognostic assessment was carried out in Lazio (a region in Central Italy with about 5.5 million inhabitants including Rome). The assessment compared two future waste management scenarios, reflecting different sustainable strategies, with a business-as-usual scenario. Effects of exposures to airborne pollutants (particles, nitrogen dioxide, dioxins, bioaerosols, biogas, odours and occupational accidents) were considered, from three main activities: waste transport, landfill sites, mechanical and biological treatment (MBT) and incineration. Health effects associated with mortality (mainly from cardiovascular and respiratory causes), adult cancers, congenital malformations, respiratory symptoms, odour annoyance and physical injuries were assessed, and aggregated into an overall measure of the disease burden (in disease-adjusted life years).

Results showed an overall moderate impact on health. The most important heath impacts were due to occupational accidents related to the collection, loading and transport of waste. Transport of waste (often done using highly polluting trucks) is also an important (and often neglected) cause of exposure to air pollution. Impacts from landfills and and incinerators is limited due to the strict legislation on emissions, but both landfills and mechanical-biological treatment plants were responsible for a considerable impact in the form of respiratory symptoms and odour annoyance. The main opportunity to reduce health impacts in the future would be through policies that encourage waste reduction, recycling, clean transport, composting and waste treatment before the final destination.

The findings also suggest an important equity issue, evidenced by the differential distribution of impacts by social group, especially for people living close to management plants. The same applies to occupational injuries among workers. These equity issues were not resolved even by the most radical Green strategy. More attention to equity issues is therefore needed in waste management planning and operation.

See also