Risk of adverse birth outcomes near landfill sites

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.323.7325.1365 (Published 08 December 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:1365

Evidence suggests that it is probably safe for fetuses to develop near landfill sites

  1. Helene Irvine, consultant in public health medicine (communicable disease and environmental health) (helene.irvine@gghb.scot.nhs.uk),
  2. Harry Burns, director of public health
  1. Greater Glasgow NHS Board, Glasgow G3 8YU
  2. Evidence for Population Health Unit, School of Epidemiology and Health Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PT
  3. Friarage Hospital, Northallerton, North Yorkshire DL6 1JG daardon@yahoo.com
  4. Oxford Prenatal Diagnosis Unit, Women's Centre, Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford OX3 9DU

    EDITOR—Elliott et al report a large geographical study of adverse birth outcomes in populations living near landfill sites.1 They conclude that there are small excess risks of congenital anomalies and low birth weight in such populations.

    Although they advise caution when interpreting their results, the study is nevertheless hailed by the press and by environmental groups as evidence that living near such sites is hazardous to health.2 The concerns felt by parents, often with no opportunity to move elsewhere, are fuelled, and perhaps on no grounds. Scientists contribute to the media generated intrigue in subtle ways. For example, the description of the paper in an editorial by McNamee and Dolk as a report “on the risks to fetuses associated with residence” when “a study of the statistical association between reported anomalies and residence” would have been more accurate and less sensationalist.3 Health authorities are left to pick up the pieces when a story breaks, with no advance warning, about a landfill site in their area.

    Another interpretation of the results of Elliott et al is that this essentially negative study goes some way to reassuring other scientists who have been studying this question that it is probably safe for fetuses to develop near such sites. Any scientist who has any experience of multivariate epidemiological analysis would have to admit …

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