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Posted: Oct 27, 2009  12:11

A Burning Question


I admit it - I've been an occasional backyard burner. I've justified it by thinking that first, I don't accumulate that much volume to burn every few months and secondly, it must be better than dumping it into the landfill….right? A reader suggested I write an article on the subject and the results were illuminating to say the least.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 20 million burn barrels across the U.S. produce some 13 million pounds of pollutants every year, making backyard burning the No. 1 quantified source of dioxin emissions in the country. In the past, household trash consisted mainly of wood and paper; today the makeup of trash has changed and now includes coated paper, plastics and other manufactured items. As a result, burning emits a nasty list of pollutants, contributing to health problems that may affect homeowners, their families, their neighbors, and the community.

Backyard burning often occurs in a burn barrel, outdoor boiler or open pit. As homeowners, we are not capable of making the fire hot enough to burn cleanly and definitely don't have the technology required to make burning cleaner (such as smokestack scrubbers, secondary incinerators or filtration systems). In addition, because the smoke is at ground level, you are at greater risk for direct exposure to various chemical pollutants. Here are a few of those pollutants:

  • Dioxins are released when items containing even trace amounts of chlorine are burned. They are a bioaccumulative toxin which means they remain in the environment for extended periods of time and increase in concentration as they move up the food chain. They enter the food chain by settling out of the air into water and onto vegetation. Dioxins can cause immune system suppression, disruption of hormonal systems, and cancer.

  • Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter, is released during trash or leaf burning as small bits of ash and can contain other harmful pollutants such as heavy metals. It can lodge deep in the lungs and cause respiratory problems and impact the young, the elderly, and people with existing conditions such as emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma.

  • VOC (volatile organic compound) is released during backyard burning of both leaves and trash, forming ground level ozone which can cause breathing difficulties.

  • Formaldehyde is released when pressed wood products, paints, coatings, siding, urea-formaldehyde foam, and fiberglass insulation are burned resulting in a burning sensation in the eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty in breathing and skin rashes. Prolonged exposure may cause cancer.

  • Hexachlorobenzene (HCB) is a highly persistent toxin that degrades slowly in the air and can travel long distances in the atmosphere. It also bioaccumulates in fish, marine animals, birds, lichens, and animals that feed on fish and lichens. HCB is a probable human carcinogen.

  • Hydrochloric acid is produced when products containing polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are burned and can cause skin burns, laryngitis, choking, bronchitis, pulmonary edema, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dehydration, convulsions, shock, lethargy, permanent visual damage, and circulatory collapse which may lead to death.

  • Carbon monoxide is produced when leaves are burned and not completely combusted and can react with sunlight to create ground-level ozone. It is absorbed into the bloodstream and combines with red blood cells, reducing the amount of oxygen the cells can absorb and supply to body tissues.

  • The ash left over from trash burning may also cause health hazards if buried or scattered in a yard or garden. Heavy metals, such as cadmium, arsenic, mercury and chromium, are often found in the inks of printed materials. They can contaminate ground or surface water and can be absorbed into plants through the soil.

I'm not usually one to be influenced by scare tactics, but you must admit, this is a scary list. Unfortunately, backyard burning is still a fairly common practice in our county. If you must burn, at least sort your trash first, recycling everything possible. You may be surprised at how little is left after you do so and at that point, it's worth a trip to the landfill to dispose of the rest.

Your comments, questions, and green tips are welcome at

Information for this article was obtained from the EPA's website.


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