Using metal ratios to detect emissions from municipal waste incinerators in ambient air pollution data

Anna Font*, Kees de Hoogh, Maria Leal-Sanchez, Danielle C. Ashworth, Richard J.C. Brown, Anna L. Hansell, Gary W. Fuller

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


This study aimed to fingerprint emissions from six municipal waste incinerators (MWIs) and then test if these fingerprint ratios could be found in ambient air samples. Stack emissions tests from MWIs comprised As, Cd, Cr, Cu, Pb, Mn, Ni, V and Hg. Those pairs of metals showing good correlation (R > 0.75) were taken as tracers of MWI emissions and ratios calculated: Cu/Pb; Cd/Pb; Cd/Cu and Cr/Pb. Emissions ratios from MWIs differed significantly from those in ambient rural locations and those close to traffic. In order to identify MWI emissions in ambient air two analysis tests were carried out. The first, aimed to explore if MWI emissions dominate the ambient concentrations. The mean ambient ratio of each of the four metal ratios were calculated for six ambient sampling sites within 10 km from a MWI under stable meteorological conditions when the wind blew from the direction of the incinerator. Under these meteorological conditions ambient Cd/Pb was within the range of MWI emissions at one location, two monitoring sites measured mean Cr/Pb ratios representative of the MWI emissions and the four sites measured values of Cu/Pb within the range of MWI emissions. No ambient measurements had mean Cd/Cu ratios within the MWI values. Even though MWI was not the main source determining the ambient metal ratios, possible occasional plume grounding might have occurred. The second test then examined possible plume grounding by identifying the periods when all metal ratios differed from rural and traffic values at the same time and were consistent with MWI emissions. Metal ratios consistent with MWI emissions were found in ambient air within 10 km of one MWI for about 0.2% of study period. Emissions consistent with a second MWI were similarly detected at two ambient measurement sites about 0.1% and 0.02% of the time. Where plume grounding was detected, the maximum annual mean particulate matter (PM) from the MWI was estimated to be 0.03 μg m-3 to 0.12 μg m-3; 2-3 orders of magnitude smaller than background ambient PM10 concentrations. Ambient concentrations of Cr increased by 1.6-3.0 times when MWI emissions were detected. From our analysis we found no evidence of incinerator emissions in ambient metal concentrations around four UK MWIs. The six UK MWIs studied contributed little to ambient PM10 concentrations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)177-186
Number of pages10
JournalAtmospheric Environment
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was funded by Public Health England (PHE). The authors would like to thank the UK Environment Agency (EA) for the electronic version of emissions data from MWIs. The work of the UK Small Area Health Statistics Unit (SAHSU) is funded by PHE as part of the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health which is also funded by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC). DCA was funded by a MRC PhD studentship. We would also like to thank the project scientific advisory committee for their valuable comments.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 The Authors.


  • Emissions
  • Fingerprinting source profiles
  • Heavy metals
  • Municipal waste incinerators
  • Receptor analysis


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