PLANS for a mass burn incinerator at Javelin Park have sparked vehement opposition from residents, and the research by Dr Dick van Steenis and Michael Ryan published in today's SNJ is only likely to increase pressure on Gloucestershire County Council to rethink the proposals.

Most significant is the news that the Health Protection Agency is considering commissioning a study into 'birth outcomes' around incinerators.

The HPA had previously dismissed calls for further research into the effects on public health of incinerator emissions, claiming in 2009 that it was not necessary.

It now appears the HPA has changed its mind, however, with the head of the organisation conceding earlier this year that a study would 'produce reliable results'.

The precise reasons for the HPA's shift in rhetoric are difficult to establish but the agency has faced growing demands to revise the advice it issues to local authorities and NHS trusts that 'well run and regulated modern municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health'.

A number of MPs have tabled questions in Parliament in recent years asking about the public health impact of incinerator emissions, and Mr Ryan and Dr van Steenis have also repeatedly pushed for the HPA to take a closer look at a possible link between infant mortality and incinerators.

What is now abundantly clear, however, is that further research is needed to determine the extent of the connection between child deaths and incinerator fumes, if indeed such a connection exists.

One could argue that the work of Mr Ryan and Dr van Steenis fails to take into account the influence of other factors which could affect rates of infant mortality, such as levels of social deprivation and the cumulative effect of other sources of pollution.

Nevertheless, the pair's research presents a compelling case for the HPA to finally commit to an exhaustive study.

At the very least, the picture painted by the ONS data and the opinions of an air pollution expert and former Environment Agency employee suggest an in-depth scientific investigation is warranted.

Until a comprehensive study has been conducted and its findings reported, it is difficult to see how GCC can continue with the incinerator project without triggering a public outcry.

Ploughing ahead with the project would do irreparable damage to GCC's reputation if it were later revealed that a concrete link could in fact be established between baby deaths and toxic incinerator smoke.

GCC has been given an opportunity to reassess the plans. A legal challenge by the Lib Dem opposition has put the project on hold for now, affording GCC time to reflect on whether or not it is prudent to drive the proposals forward.

Deep public unease surrounds the plans, which are opposed by Cheltenham Borough Council and Stroud District Council.

In addition to worries centering on the dangers to health, concerns are also prevalent about the length of the council's 25-year contract with Urbaser Balfour Beatty.

It has been argued that incineration as a method of waste disposal will soon become outdated and that waste earmarked for the Javelin Park plant in 20 years would likely be recyclable using newly developed waste disposal technologies.

There is wide-ranging support among Lib Dems and opposition groups for a mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plant, however claims that MBT is a greener option have been fiercely disputed.

Rather than solving the waste disposal issue, it appears an MBT plant would only displace the problem as leftover waste is transported elsewhere for incineration and landfill.

According to Dr van Steenis, Stan Waddington, the county's cabinet champion for waste, is quite right to insist that MBT is not the answer to Gloucestershire's waste disposal problem.

Dr van Steenis rejects claims that MBT is the panacea and he instead advocates the use of plasma arc gasification technology as a means of disposing of waste.