Metro Vancouver's proposed incinerator might have a nanopollution problem

Metro Vancouver’s proposed $470-million, 500,000-tonne-a-year waste incinerator could pump massive amounts of potentially toxic nanoparticles into the air, worsening poor air quality and respiratory disease in the region, scientists say.

Frying garbage at high temperatures creates gigantic numbers of super-tiny smog particles that are only a few nanometres (or billionths of a metre) in size, also known as ultrafine particles. These particles are so minuscule they can penetrate deeply into the lungs and bloodstream, which makes them far more toxic than larger particles.

“I don’t think there’s any question among health professionals that the smaller the particle, the more problematic it is from a health perspective,” said Ian McKendry, an air-pollution expert and geography professor at UBC, in a phone interview from his office.

“There is a large body of credible published evidence to suggest that there is indeed sufficient cause for concern [about the incinerator plan], especially from dioxins and nano-particles,” McKendry wrote in a February report for the Fraser Valley Regional District on the proposed incinerator.

Incinerators come equipped with filters to catch emissions, but these are generally designed to capture mostly large particles, said Vyvyan Howard, a nanoparticle expert and professor of bioimaging at the University of Ulster, in a phone interview from his office in Coleraine, Northern Ireland.

The filters typically let through five to 30 percent of smaller particles under 2.5 microns (millionths of a metre) in size, which cause the worst health damage, Howard noted in a 2009 report on a proposed incinerator in Cork, Ireland.

As for the smallest, nano-sized particles, today’s incinerator filters allow the majority of them to pass through and into the air, Howard wrote.

Europeans lose an average of eight months of life expectancy due to fine-particle pollution of 2.5 microns in size, which leads to the equivalent of 3.6 million life-years lost each year, according to a 2005 report by the European Commission.

Nanoparticles are even more toxic than fine particles. That’s partly because they have far more surface area that can react with body tissues than bigger particles of the same weight. (For example, a cubic metre block of wood split into 10,000 splinters will offer up far more surface area than the original block.)

A 2009 report on Metro Vancouver’s waste-management options by the firm AECOM downplayed the concerns. It said an incinerator wouldn’t produce as much pollution as other sources, like cars and cement kilns.

It said incinerator filters typically capture 99.9 percent of all particles by weight. But it conceded that the filters may not be as good at capturing ultrafine particles. “Some experimental results have shown that air pollution control devices, such as fabric filters, may be more effective for larger particles”¦than for ultrafine particles,” the report said.

Howard retorts that incinerator emissions include dioxins and metals such as mercury, which are more toxic than pollution from other sources.

He also said it’s the number, not weight, of nanoparticles getting out that poses the problem. Ultrafine particles “are generally around only one percent of the total mass [of air pollution] but present the majority of the surface area that is reactive to human tissues,” he said in his report.



Hu Gadarn

Jul 21, 2011 at 6:45am

Thanks for the article on an important subject (i.e. the air we all breathe and its implications for health). However, the story would have been stronger with a call to Metro Vancouver regarding nanoparticles rather than simply referring to their 2009 report. You tracked down and called someone in Northern Ireland but not Burnaby? Other than that (significant gap) though the story is most welcome.

Martin Dunphy

Jul 21, 2011 at 12:13pm

Hu Gadarn:

Thanks for your input. The writer interviewed someone in Northern Ireland instead of Burnaby because that is where Vyvyan Howard, a world-renowned expert on environmental toxins, lives and works.
Thank you, and have a nice day.

Hu Gadarn

Jul 21, 2011 at 1:57pm

Hi Martin, thanks for your reply and the well wishes for me to have a nice day (which I am having incidently).

Firstly, as I expect you know, there is usually more than one "world-renowned expert" for any particular field. For this topic there are many such experts, e.g. in Austria, Sweden, ... Dr Howard is known as a toxico-pathologist and commonly speaks on floridation in water. While his name pops up if you google "incineration" as a prominent opponent it doesn't imply he is the world's authority on the subject.

Secondly, and to the point of my question which was not addressed in your reply, why wasn't someone phoned in Burnaby (i.e. from the Metro Vancouver office)? If one is to analyze/ critique a paper by an organization then wouldn't it make sense to offer them the chance to comment?

Unless one is not seeking truth but instead trying to advance their own point.

Fan'o Truth

Jul 21, 2011 at 2:08pm

@Martin Dunphy
Thank you, and have a nice day.

Sounds like "good luck in your future endeavours".

Martin Dunphy

Jul 21, 2011 at 3:25pm

Hu Gadarn:

I'm glad you are having a nice day.
As regards the above article, it is merely a sidebar to the larger feature published today. A sidebar is used for information that might be considered tangential to the focus of the main piece, and generally does not contain many further interviews.
The Straight has published many stories about incineration issues in the Lower Mainland in the past few years.
One of the more extensively researched articles ( referenced Vyvyan Howard and linked to a pertinent research paper.
And, no, I can assure you that neither the Straight nor Alex Roslin are "not seeking truth but instead trying to advance their own point" by not interviewing someone in Burnaby.
Keep on having a nice day.


Jul 21, 2011 at 3:47pm

Yes, airborne nanoparticle pollution. Something worth paying attention to, as opposed to the linked article about less penetrating hazards. This crud will likely get embedded in your lungs in a similar fashion to silica and asbestos and never come back out.

Fan'o Truth

Jul 21, 2011 at 4:53pm

Somebody has an incredibly short wick.

Martin Dunphy

Jul 21, 2011 at 4:59pm

Fan'o Truth:

You have a nice day.

Standing Water BA LLD MBA BBQ WTF

Jul 21, 2011 at 9:04pm

You all have a _real fine day_

Hu Gadarn

Jul 22, 2011 at 6:49am

(So far my day is nice but it not yet 7 am so who knows.)

So then this article is incomplete?

That is, if it is "information that might be considered tangential to the focus of the main piece" then it should not be read on its own? That's kind of odd since (1) there's no such disclaimer in the article, not even a link or reference to what you call "the main piece"; (2) it is listed in the GS "News Features" section; and, (3) none of your info answers my question, now thrice repeated, as to why the author wouldn't have just picked up the phone and called someone in Burnaby to reply to the story and the expert *in Ireland*.

BTW - I'm continuing to comment here since I think the issue is important and I believe this article could be better with *just a little more work*.