CLAIMS that toxic fumes pumped out by waste incinerators are to blame for the premature deaths of babies and young children look set to be investigated by the Health Protection Agency.

It has been confirmed that officials from the HPA are considering commissioning a study into 'birth outcomes' around incinerators just weeks after Gloucestershire County Council awarded a contract to Urbaser Balfour Beatty to construct a mass burn facility at Javelin Park near Haresfield.

Work carried out by an air pollution expert and a former Environment Agency employee claims to show a significantly higher rate of infant deaths occurring in areas downwind of incinerators.

The pair, Dr Dick van Steenis and Michael Ryan, believe that tiny particulates contained within incinerator emissions are to blame for large numbers of baby and child deaths, as well as birth defects, childhood cancers and respiratory illnesses.

Sue Oppenheimer, the chairman of GLOSVAIN (Gloucestershire Vale Against Incineration), has now called on GCC to halt the £500 million project until any potential HPA study is completed and the findings are publicly disclosed.

"I think it is irresponsible for the council to proceed with an incinerator when there are question marks about the health impacts because once they have built it they are stuck with it for 25 years," she said.

Responding to news that the HPA is drawing up a detailed proposal for thestudy, GCC said it welcomed 'robust and peer reviewed research' which would help to dispel 'some of the myths surrounding modern incinerators'.

The decision by the HPA to enter into discussions with a team of researchers from Imperial College London follows mounting public and political pressure on the agency to take a closer look at the possible link between incinerators and abnormally high rates of infant mortality in areas downwind of the waste disposal plants.

A 2009 HPA report concluded that while it was not possible to rule out adverse health effects from incinerators, any potential damage to the health of those living close-by was likely to be 'very small, if detectable.'

In light of those findings, the report said further studies of public health around modern, well-managed municipal waste incinerators were 'not recommended'.

However, it appears that the HPA has backtracked and now considers further research into the public health effects of incinerators necessary.

After holding discussions with academics at Imperial College earlier this year, the head of the HPA Justin McCracken said that a study of birth outcomes around incinerators would in fact 'produce reliable results.'

Michael Ryan, a prominent anti-incineration campaigner, who has been calling on the HPA to conduct such a study since 2003, has branded the agency's change of tack a 'blatant U-turn'.

Working with Dr Dick van Steenis, a retired GP and former advisor to a House of Commons air pollution select committee, Mr Ryan has spent the best part of a decade investigating the purported link between incinerator fumes and child deaths.

Using figures obtained from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the pair believe they have established a definitive link between the deaths of children and their proximity to incinerators.

After mapping out the ONS data around 28 incinerators located in Britain, they claim to have found that the average UK infant mortality rate is raised by some eight deaths per 1,000 births in wards situated within 15 miles downwind of the waste disposal facilities - a staggering statistic.

"Those who say that incinerators are not harming health have not looked at any of the data," said Mr Ryan, a former employee of the Environment Agency.

"What the data suggests is that there is a clear link between infant mortality and exposure to incinerators and their emissions."

Mr Ryan, 62, believes the death of his 19-year-old son David from leukaemia in 1999 may have been caused by pollution from a hospital incinerator close to the boy's school.

The retired civil engineer was aware that another lad in his son's class had died of the disease and of several other cases reported in the area, but it was not until 2001, following a discussion with a haematology nurse who had treated David, that Mr Ryan began to suspect a connection between his son's death and the nearby incinerator.

"Since starting my research in 2002 I cannot believe what I have found out. To be honest I am quite appalled," said Mr Ryan who lives in Shrewsbury.

In a statement to the SNJ, Jo Walker, GCC's director of strategic finance, said: "The HPA's position is that modern well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk.

"This has recently been re-iterated in parliament by Chris Huhne, the secretary of state for environment and climate change.

"Therefore, we welcome any robust and peer reviewed research that will help in refuting some of the myths surrounding modern incinerators."

A spokesman for the HPA said: "The HPA's position is that well run and regulated modern municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health.

"However, we recognise that there are real public concerns about this issue and will take every possible step to reassure people that the position is as we have outlined.

"HPA also continually seeks to review and extend the evidence base on which it bases its advice.

"For these reasons we are in discussions with researchers at Imperial College London about a potential study into birth outcomes around municipal waste incinerators and a detailed proposal for what would be a complex study is being drawn up."