Getting my hands dirty with composting

Written by: Dr Stephen Wise | Published:
Dr Stephen Wise

This month sees Dr Stephen Wise, associate director, Environment & Infrastructure Europe, Amec Foster Wheeler, examine the potential health impacts of bioaerosols and look at how best to approach the problem

September has seen me don my site gear and personal protective equipment (PPE) and get my hands dirty on a number of composting and waste treatment sites to oversee bioaerosol monitoring and management projects being delivered by Amec Foster Wheeler on behalf of our clients. These projects include monitoring bioaerosol emissions, undertaking risk assessments and writing management plans.

Bioaerosols in the waste and resource industry, and especially within the organic waste sector, are not new. However, with the release of revised bioaerosol guidance by the regulator, the Environment Agency, there is a renewed interest and increased focus with the emission and control of bioaerosols.

But what are bioaerosols and why are they important to manage?

Bioaerosols are naturally occurring airborne particles in the environment. They are of interest as they can pass through the nasal system and into the respiratory system where they may cause a respiratory response such as asthma or flu-like symptoms. In very severe cases they may produce a worse response that requires significant medical intervention.

Bioaerosols are present and we are exposed to them when mowing our lawns, vacuuming our homes or even when walking through a field. However, with waste management operations such as composting the risk is potentially higher as a greater concentration of bioaerosols can be released. The key is that each individual responds differently to bioaerosols and at different concentrations. There is no de facto safe limit of exposure.

The concern with respect to the potential health impacts of bioaerosols is not new and stretches back to the early part of the millennium when the issue was first raised as composting started to become a common method for the processing of garden waste and other organic materials. At that time, I was the general manager for SITA Organics with responsibility for 10 composting operations across the UK.
We were one of the first organisations to look at this issue and develop and implement a robust plan for their monitoring and management. The first stage was the completion of a risk assessment of operations and potential impact on employees, visitors and nearby residents. This was followed with the implementation of measures to protect health and in the case of employees to also undertake health monitoring.

We also worked with the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency and what was then the Composting Association, to conduct further research and develop best practice. In addition, we funded a wider project into bioaerosol emisisons from waste processing facilities and the potential health impacts which covered a variety of sites in the UK and Europe.

This combination of work enables us as a sector to develop best practice guidance for the monitoring and management of bioaerosols at composting plants. The guidance was also transposed for use in other types of waste processing sites.

Now that I am back working in the organic waste sector, it would appear that little progress into further understanding and management of bioaerosols has taken place in the intervening years. However, it seems that bioaerosols are once again climbing the regulatory priority ladder with organic waste treatment operations receiving closer scrutiny.

It is therefore important that operators across the sector respond and take a look at what they are doing and how they are doing it with respect to the monitoring and management of bioaerosols. Remaining compliant, and where necessary seeking assistance from organisations such as Amec Foster Wheeler which have the required experience and knowledge, is essential if operators are to protect the health of their employees.

The health and financial cost of doing nothing will be far greater than investing now in making sure that operations will be compliant into the future.

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