||Magazine Issue 8 - Spring 1999|
|Toxic Detective - Interview with Dr Dick Van Steenis.
Im a GP who took early retirement due to ill health. I have looked into the health effects of industrial air pollution due to the mishandling of toxic waste and would estimate that in the UK we have anything up to 20,000 deaths a year which you can pin directly to industrial pollution. The Royal Brompton Hospital has estimated the bill to the NHS due to pollution to be as high as £11 billion per year. And that's not counting the wider costs to society. Nobody's ever dared to tot that up.
I was asked to join the CPRW (Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales) in 1994. We looked at the application for National Power to burn 5 million tonnes of imported bitumen and water mix and waste oil at the Pembroke Power Station. I was asked to look into the health implications. As a doctor I knew about asthma, cancer, and heart attacks, but toxicology was new to me. Indeed toxicology training amongst doctors is almost non-existent.
I knew that there was a huge rise in asthma amongst the local population, so I hit on the idea of getting the figures on inhaler usage amongst children at the local primary schools and mapping it out. We produced a definitive map and found that, using it, we could estimate asthma levels in the villages accurate to within one or two percent, showing that it was point sources causing the asthma and nothing else. We found in areas clear of the pollution only one or two percent of children using inhalers, at intermediate zones about seven percent, and the high zone about 20%. Now thats not total asthma levels, thats just the number of children who need to take inhalers to school. The total asthma would obviously be much higher.
Youve also researched the Castle Cement works at Clitheroe, haven't you?
I was asked to help there in early 1995, after my maps were published at Pembrokeshire. I did a survey there of every primary school in the yellow pages. I mapped it out and we found exactly the same sort of thing we found in Pembrokeshire.
We worked out that where the chimney plume was grounding there were problems. Clitheroe is in a very steep valley and the plume grounds virtually every night.
When the plant switched from burning coal to toxic waste health problems increased, due to a huge rise in heavy metals released into the air.
We also had figures on the dioxin levels in milk and we found that downwind of the plant they were five times higher than they were upwind. Asthma was six times higher downwind than upwind. At the end of the day it's a question of profitability. And if theyre burning toxic waste, which they are paid to burn, and not forking out £26 pounds a ton on coal, the profit is astronomic. They can well afford the relevant safety equipment, and they should be licensed as toxic waste incinerators and have to comply with the EU directives. At the moment theyre not.
So what was the reaction of Castle Cement to your research?
When I presented my findings at the first public meeting at Clitheroe, Castle Cement had only sent one junior official and he could not comment or answer any questions. At the 2nd meeting they brought along every director and senior official from the company nation-wide, and they still hadnt a single comment in answer to my presentation.
The Environment Agency was forced to do some monitoring in '95 after my revelations. They printed out only 11 minutes of the whole seven days monitoring. They then ordered Castle Cement to improve things on six different points. The company appealed and there was a hearing before an inspector.
I asked the Environment Agency why they werent complying with all the European Directives- they hadnt even heard of them. The inspector ordered the Agency to give me the full monitoring data.
A few weeks later Castle Cement wrote in to say that they withdrew their appeal because the Agency had dropped five of the six conditions and they would comply with the sixth. I never got the data. Every time theres an incident, reports just disappear.
Few court cases happen or prosecutions arise. At one time they were mixing their own toxic waste and there were leaks, and one of the staff lost consciousness. They called the HSE and the fire brigade who told them to shut the mixing plant and keep it shut because it was a fire hazard. Then three days later the Environment Agency came along and said, "No problem, reopen it", without even informing the HSE. I could write volumes about the scams occurring at Clitheroe, which have resulted in the death rate in the area rising from 80% of the national average to 140%
I put in a request to Christies Hospital in Manchester to give me the cancer rates for the area by postcode, that was agreed to by Professor Ashton of the Northwest Regional Health Authority and Professor Woodruff of Christies. After they printed out the results however they refused to give them to me. They wrote and said, "We shant give you the data because of Castle Cement". It turned out that a week before Castle Cement had given the hospital a very large cash donation. The hospital would not say how much.
Who would you say were the worst toxic offenders?
The worst I know about are the Texaco refinery in Pembroke, which is allowed unlimited emissions and has never been independently monitored; National Power at Pembroke Power Station, where we caught them out burning unauthorised fuel '92 to '96; BP at Llandarcy, who have caused endless troubles; Castle Cement of course; and Monsantos chemical plant at Kevin Maur, near Wrexham, which has various hiccups from time to time which poison the local residents.
Toxic waste dumps are also extremely dangerous. We have two in Wales, an one in the Rhondda's and one near Merthyr Tydfil. The infant mortality rate around both of them has risen almost to the levels of Belarus, after Chernobyl. The local councils set them up as ordinary domestic waste sites and then the EA (or its predecessors) converted them to toxics. Once a council passes a site the EA has powers to impose toxic waste there, with no appeal and no public consultation.
The Transfrontier Shipment Service of the Environment Agency in Manchester arranges all the imported waste from abroad into the country. Their local offices authorise its dumping or incineration- it's becoming a huge trade. As yet they are refusing to tell us how much waste they are importing. It's Top Secret. According to the BBC there are a thousand shiploads going into Kent alone, each year. How many more thousand are going in to Harwich, Liverpool and our other ports? So much of the toxic waste that they wouldnt even contemplate burning or burying in Europe comes over here.
You state that many areas of the country have been effectively sacrificed as killing fields to toxic waste pollution.
We noticed that certain areas were being absolutely clobbered by pollution, with high concentrations of polluting industrial sites. Youll find that the areas with the worst mortality rates in this country are also the areas with the worst pollution from industry. They also tend to be the poorest. Ive stated this openly at a number of public meetings now and at one an officer of the EA was present and was cross-examined afterwards. He verified that what I had said was correct. All the most lethal processes are deliberately being sited in areas where the social classes are further down the scale. So of course the government can then blame lifestyle, smoking, social deprivation etc for the illnesses, which is what they are doing.
In the Rhonddas, for instance, where people are dying as much as twelve years earlier than in Surrey, they are just blaming it all on deprivation and lifestyle, particularly smoking. But when you check the smoking rate of course you find that it's almost identical to areas without the toxic sites.
So how do the Environment Agency get away with it?
After I went public at the September International Medical Conference, at the end of September the Environment Agency suddenly put out a disclaimer saying that their data wasn't accurate, valid or up to date. Furthermore if you want a copy of their data they cannot guarantee that the copy will be accurate either. That way of course they can give you anything, with this disclaimer they can delete or alter anything they like. And we find the govt up to the same tricks. The DETR admitted to me under cross examination at a meeting of 140 doctors, in July this year, that the PM10 (particles smaller than 10 microns) pollution figures have been massaged down to the figures that the govt wants, i.e. below 50.
Up at Clitheroe, around the Castle Cement works official monitoring is showing figures like minus 30 for particle levels. You can't have minus particles- a vacuum is zero. Independent studies from Clitheroe in 95 showed levels of 490 in the school playground and last year 240 in a hospital ward.
What should be done?
The regulatory system is hopeless, because the Environment Agency gets money from importing it, from authorising it, and from policing it. They are supposed to be the ones prosecuting but they don't because they jeopardise their own finances by shutting something down. 60% of their income comes from fees from industry. Its like having the police being financed by the drug barons.
No one really knows what risks we're running. No one really wants to know. And of course the govt isn't going to tell them. The whole planning system is geared so that the politicians can control it. The prosecution of problems should become the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive. They should be given a 10% commission on all the court fines, arising from cases they bring. So they will have an incentive to do some active monitoring and active prosecutions.
The Environment Agency should be downgraded to a licensing agency so everyone can see what's on the licence and what the conditions are. The public health departments should lose their directors and just do epidemiology- mapping out where the problems are and why, with the raw figures made available to all doctors in accord with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. They're going have to start training doctors too, so we need centres for toxicology training.
The problem's getting worse and we have to act now. We've got more incinerators sprouting up all over the country, emitting dioxins, metals and organic compounds. Toxic waste incineration at cement works only started in '92, so there will be childhood cancers starting now and adult cancers will follow in another five years or so. There's a horrible legacy to come...