Irish Examiner - 05/01/06
Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill talks to one family who lived close to a Belgian incinerator for more than two decades.
FOR MORE than 20 years Fred De Baere and his wife Kristine lived close to the state-owned waste incinerator in the Flemish town of Sint Niklaas in northern Belgium.
The plant, with a capacity to burn 55,500 tonnes of waste, was just part of the landscape and Fred thought little of it when he moved to the area in 1977.
But over the years he began to wonder why he and his wife were having problems with pregnancies and he began to notice ailments among his neighbours.
His wife, Kristine, said: “I suffered spontaneous abortions, and when we had twin boys, they died just before birth but the doctors could not find any reason.”
They have two living children but their eldest daughter, now aged 24, suffers from a hormone deficiency that will make it very difficult for her to have children.
Their son David was born some years later and is now 10 years of age but is a dwarf as a result of a genetic problem.
Fred is convinced all these problems are related to the incinerator that belched out toxic dioxins for years without even a proper filter system.
When he brought his fears to the town’s mayor in 1997, he was told it was all his imagination and the mayor accused him of looking for a scapegoat for his son’s problems.
The incinerator is state-owned and the mayor was a member of the board, while the person responsible for the town’s environment was chairman of the board for a time.
“It’s wrong when the government owns the waste incinerator and is also responsible for people’s health,” said Fred.
When his campaign to have a health study carried out failed, he decided to undertake one himself on Medlarstreet, within 300 metres of the incinerator and which had the highest concentration of dioxins.
In January 1998 a questionnaire was sent to all families in the street asking them to report a range of health complaints, and any effects on pets or plants.
More than 60% of the 145 families living on the street filled out the questionnaire, covering 281 people.
The results were shocking: incidents of cancer were more than 480% higher than the national average.
They found a huge range of ailments ranging from mild mental defects to allergies and gastric and bronchial problems.
People living in Medlarstreet died earlier than normal Belgians, with women having an average life span of just under 60 years compared to the national average of more than 77 years and for men this was around 65 years compared to the average of about 71 years.
Mr de Baere finally got the incinerator shut down two years ago when the Belgian Courts found it contravened the law by not using the best available technology. He has visited Ireland on a number of occasions to help the campaign against waste incinerators.
Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment