Assessment of Health Effects of Waste-to-Energy and U.S. Total Dioxin Emissions
Nickolas Themelis, Professor Emeritus, Earth Engineering Center, Columbia University


Waste-to-energy facilities have done a remarkable job in reducing dioxin emissions since the enactment of the Clean Air Act of 1990. Yet today there are some opponents to waste-to-energy facilities who refer to the threat of dioxin emissions. This paper addresses this public acceptance issue by quantifying the health risk posed by dioxin emissions in the waste-to-energy industry. First, the 2012 contribution of the waste-to-energy facilities to the total dioxin emissions in the U.S is evaluated. Although until the early nineties waste-to-energy was a major contributor to total dioxin emissions, recent data proves that this is no longer the case. Second, this study examines the health effects of dioxins emitted during the Seveso industrial accident in Italy, which resulted in the highest ever exposures to dioxins. Measurements from this incident relate air and soil dioxin concentration levels and exposed persons’ lipid adjusted serum levels, and establish a link between high dioxin exposure and health consequences. The high dioxin concentrations caused by the accident, and the following decades of health effect studies on the exposed population provide accurate data on the short and long term health effects of high dioxin exposure. By comparing these results with exposures due to waste-to-energy plants, the actual impact of waste-to-energy on lipid adjusted serum levels can be evaluated, and extrapolated to determine the health effects of waste-to-energy based dioxin emissions. These results allow for an assessment of the actual health risk due to the waste-to-energy sector’s dioxins, and pave the way for more informed decisions when trying to promote, site, fund, incentivize, or regulate waste-to-energy facilities.

Following my presentation, audience members will be able to:

  1. Explain the evolution and scope of the WTE sector’s dioxin emissions
  2. Understand dioxins health effects for high exposures
  3. Quantify the impact of the WTE sector’s dioxin emissions on health

BIO:  Dr. Themelis obtained his B. Eng. (British Association Medal for Great Distinction) and Ph.D. degrees from McGill University (Montreal, Canada) in chemical engineering. In the first 10 years of his career, he was Director of the Engineering Division of the Noranda Research Center in Pointe Claire, where he invented and helped develop the Noranda Process for the continuous smelting and converting of copper concentrates and recycled copper and the recovery of sulphur dioxide as sulphuric acid Since its inception, the Noranda process has reduced sulphur emissions from copper smelting to the atmosphere by millions of tons.
In 1972-1980, Prof. Themelis was Vice President of Technology of Kennecott Corp., the major non-ferrous company at that time. He was appointed as Professor by Columbia University (New York City, U.S.A.) in 1980 and was elected to Stanley-Thompson Chair of Chemical Metallurgy in 1988. He was chairman of the Henry Krumb School of Mines and founded Columbia’s Earth Engineering Center in 1996. In 1995, he introduced at Columbia University the teaching of industrial ecology to engineers and in 1997 led the transformation of the historic School of Mines to the new engineering discipline of Earth and Environmental Engineering and was first chairman of the new Department.
Prof. Themelis is founder and Chairman of the Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council (WTERT, www.wtert.org), an international consortium of universities, companies and governmental organizations concerned with the recovery of materials and energy from industrial and municipal wastes by means of recycling, anaerobic digestion, composting, WTE, and landfill gas capture and utilization.