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Homeowners may feel that they're doing the right thing by burning their waste to keep it out of local landfills, but they are doing quite the opposite. The smoke from backyard trash fires, even those which are contained in burn barrels, has the potential to have far reaching health consequences for the person doing the burning, and for nearby neighbours.

Local wildlife, vegetation, and food gardens may also be negatively impacted by the pollutants from even small backyard trash fires.

he nature of household trash has changed over the past fifty years. Today, bleached paper, plastic packaging or plastic products, and printed materials with glues, plastic coatings and coloured inks make up a large portion of society’s waste. When these items are burned in low temperature fires like those that take place in a backyard burn barrel, very high levels of toxic chemicals and fine particulate matter are released with the smoke. Many of these toxins don’t readily break down, leading to accumulation and persistence in the environment.

A recent study by the Swedish Environmental Protection Administration, “Chlorine-containing plastic waste gave rise to high emissions”, finds PVC plastic (polyvinyl chloride or vinyl) to be major source of dioxin in home burning.

The most common chlorine-containing waste is PVC found in so-called blister-packs. In the US, another common type of chlorine-containing plastic waste is PVDC (polyvinylidene chloride) or the original Saran Wrap commonly used to wrap foods. PVC is also found in other disposable items and packaging, often disguised as a layer in multi-layer plastics. The Swedish study looked at burning trash in home wood stoves and boilers, but applies to outdoor burning as well.

For some Americans who eat a lot of animal fat or fish, the risk is 1 in 100. These risks are 1000 and 10,000 times higher than the government’s “benchmark” levels for “acceptable” risk

Open burning of trash is the dominant source of dioxins in the US. According to the EPA’s Dioxin Reassessment report, dioxin levels in the average American present as much as a 1 in 1000 risk of cancer. For some Americans who eat a lot of animal fat or fish, the risk is 1 in 100. These risks are 1000 and 10,000 times higher than the government’s “benchmark” levels for “acceptable” risk.

Milk cartons, painted and impregnated wood, printed matter and plastics are rubbish which belong in the waste bin – not in outdoor trash fires.

Smoke from burn barrels is far from just a ‘nuisance’ for your neighbours. The compounds in the smoke that comes from trash burning can cause respiratory problems and many other health issues for people who are exposed to it. One of the worst things about backyard burning is that the toxic smoke is released at ground-level in our own back yards – right where people live and breathe.

The New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation identified ‘open burning’ as the number 1 priority for preventing pollution amongst 62 pollution sources examined by New York State. NY DEC Comparative Risks Project Final Report.

So please think about the health of your neighbors, children and the environment before you consider burning your garbage. Municipal garbage disposal services are better prepared to handle and dispose of household waste. Modern high-efficiency incinerators, for example, are far more effective at reducing the volume of toxins entering the environment.

Reduce, reuse, recycle as much as possible and use your barrels to collect rain water instead of garbage.