Incinerators may put babies at risk


Date released 29 May 2003


The risk of stillbirth and some abnormalities may be slightly increased among babies of mothers living near incinerators and crematoria, suggests research by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.


The findings, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, are based on an analysis of births in Cumbria, north west England, between 1956 and 1993. During this period, there were almost 245 000 births, of which 3234 were stillborn, and a further 2663 babies died shortly after birth. 1569 had congenital abnormalities.

There was no increased risk of stillbirth or death shortly after birth, overall among babies whose mothers lived near incinerators. But after taking account of influential factors, such as birth order and multiple births, the risk of neural tube defects, particularly spina bifida, was 17% higher and heart defects 12% higher.

When the analysis concentrated on birth defects and stillbirths in the period before the incinerators were operational, no increased risk was found.


The risk of stillbirth was 4% higher and the risk of the life threatening brain abnormality anencephalus was 5% higher among babies whose mothers lived near to crematoria.

The authors point out that the introduction of antenatal screening and termination of pregnancy would have reduced the number of potential stillbirths and babies born with lethal congenital abnormalities in recent years. Added to which, the lack of data on pregnancies of under 28 weeks could have underestimated the extent of serious and lethal birth defects

Incinerators and crematoria may emit harmful chemicals, including dioxins, although little is known about the long term effects of prolonged low dose exposure. But because of a lack of emissions data, no definitive conclusions can be drawn on the biological plausibility of the findings.


The study does not provide conclusive evidence of a causal effect, but nevertheless the statistical findings bear further investigation, say the authors, especially in view of the fact that so few comparable studies have been carried out, and that incineration is becoming more widely used as a method of waste disposal.

Contact: Professor Louise Parker, School of Clinical Medical Sciences, University of Newcastle, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, UK. Tel: +44 (0)1912023037. Mobile (0776) 841-8327. Email: