Risks of Municipal Solid Waste Incineration: An Environmental Perspective

Richard A. Denison, Ellen K. Silbergeld

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


The central focus of the debate over incineration of municipal solid waste (MSW) has shifted from its apparent management advantages to unresolved risk issues. This shift is a result of the lack of comprehensive consideration of risks associated with incineration. We discuss the need to expand incinerator risk assessment beyond the limited view of incinerators as stationary air pollution sources to encompass the following: other products of incineration, ash in particular, and pollutants other than dioxins, metals in particular; routes of exposure in addition to direct inhalation; health effects in addition to cancer; and the cumulative nature of exposure and health effects induced by many incinerator‐associated pollutants. Rational MSW management planning requires that the limitations as well as advantages of incineration be recognized. Incineration is a waste‐processing—not a waste disposal—technology, and its products pose substantial management and disposal problems of their own. Consideration of the nature of these products suggests that incineration is ill‐suited to manage the municipal wastestream in its entirety. In particular, incineration greatly enhances the mobility and bioavailability of toxic metals present in MSW. These factors suggest that incineration must be viewed as only one component in an integrated MSW management system. The potential for source reduction, separation, and recycling to increase the safety and efficiency of incineration should be counted among their many benefits. Risk considerations dictate that alternatives to the use of toxic metals at the production stage also be examined in designing an effective, long‐term MSW management strategy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)343-355
Number of pages13
JournalRisk Analysis
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1988
Externally publishedYes


  • Risk assessment
  • exposure routes
  • incinerator ash
  • lead
  • metals

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • Physiology (medical)


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