Case Study 1

Perceived Community Exposure to Dioxin from an Industrial Incineration process: Risk Assessment and Communication

This case study presents mechanisms adopted by UK regulators to address public concerns related to dioxins exposure. Communities have been shown to express concern about emissions of POPs e.g. dioxins and furans (often referred to as just ‘dioxins’). Dioxins comprise a group of chemicals with a similar chemical structure, which exhibit similar types of biological effects. Dioxins are not produced intentionally but may be formed as unwanted by-products in a variety of combustion processes – natural as well as industrial or man-made, including cooking and heating methods.

Population perception of risk is known to be affected by a range of factors. For example hazards which appear as involuntary, invisible and originating from unfamiliar and man made sources are often perceived to be higher risk. This presents challenges when undertaking risk communication. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has identified dioxins as probable human carcinogens and in the UK, the expert government body Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment has adopted a precautionary approach.

As outlined in the chapter on Health Impact of Persistent Organic Pollutants of The Manual Reference Handbook for the Sustainable Remediation Sites Contaminated by Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), environmental exposure to pollutants is rarely straightforward. POPs such as ‘dioxins’ may partition into multiple environmental media e.g. air emissions resulting in contaminated soil and plants with subsequent uptake by animals e.g. into milk and meat. Exposure assessment is therefore dependent on appropriate environmental sampling or modelling, which is not always available. As such exposure assessment, risk assessment and subsequent risk communication need to be undertaken in partnership, using expertise from a range of specialists.

A recent incident in the UK gave rise to concerns in relation to exposure of the local population to ‘dioxins’ following increased emissions from a regulated industrial incineration process. Successful enforcement action was taken by the mandated UK regulator against the industrial process for exceeding the emissions standard limits to air for dioxin which had been laid down by UK and European legislation. Sampling information was variable but the regulator informed the population that the emissions were the highest in the region and that under a worst case scenario the breach had occurred over a period of several months. This information relating to the environment resulted in concerns being expressed as to the potential impact of ‘dioxins’ on the health of the local population.