Up in Smoke

UNFORTUNATELY, MILLIONS of Americans still rely on backyard burning to manage household waste. Small communities especially continue this practice because burning waste is less costly and eliminates the need to appropriately collect and dispose of waste.

However, this disposal method threatens the health of both rural and urban residents. Burning refuse in a static pile, a burn barrel or other semi-enclosed “burn box” emits dioxins and other toxic chemicals. Dioxin compounds, such as furans and polychlorinated bi-phenyls (PCBs), are released when materials containing carbon and chlorine are burned. These compounds are toxic even in small amounts. Today, several agencies are making strides to educate communities about backyard burning.

For example, the Rural Community Assistance Program (RCAP) Inc., Washington, D.C., provides hands-on education, training and technical assistance to rural or tribal areas. A national nonprofit organization, RCAP focuses on waste characterization and landfill-closing studies, routing and collection system evaluations, writing solid waste plan development, and source reduction, reuse, composting and recycling programs.

A current RCAP project in Lane County, Ore., is examining alternatives to residential yard waste burning, which is causing poor air quality in a 3,300-person community. One alternative to burning yard waste is to develop a seasonal leaf collection and backyard composting program. Currently, RCAP is assisting the county with writing grant proposals to obtain funding for the program's startup costs, including the purchase of a leaf vacuum truck, backyard composting bins to be distributed to interested residents and materials to develop a composting demonstration area. RCAP also is helping to identify educators and local leaders who can organize backyard composting demonstration workshops to teach residents how to compost and raise awareness on the hazards of backyard burning.

RCAP also is trying to eliminate backyard burning in Dimmit County, Texas. RCAP conducted a study to determine whether to implement a residential solid waste collection system. The study showed that such a program was economically viable, but county officials are concerned that the system would be too expensive for residents. Therefore, RCAP and the county continue to research backyard burning alternatives.

Other organizations have joined efforts to combat backyard burning through research. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., recently published its Dioxin Reassessment Report. This study reclassifies dioxins as a human carcinogen, rather than a “likely” carcinogen.

However, dioxins are not the only problem related to backyard burning, according to the EPA. Smoke from open burning also contains other pollutants, such as particulate matter, sulfur dioxides, lead, mercury and hexachlorobenzene. Breathing these pollutants can damage the lungs, nervous system, kidneys and liver.

The EPA data suggests that by 2004, backyard burning will graduate from No. 2 to the No. 1 largest contributor of dioxin emissions in the United States. Emissions from related waste management services, such as landfill fires, municipal solid waste (MSW) and medical incineration, have been significantly reduced during the past decade. By comparison, backyard burning of household waste emits 1,000 to 10,000 times more dioxins than modern, well-controlled MSW incinerators.

Other organizations also have written literature related to backyard burning, including the Chlorine Chemistry Council, Arlington, Va. The council's brochure, “Backyard Trash Burning: The Wrong Answer,” states that people believe polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic in trash is the source of dioxins emitted during backyard trash burning. Research has demonstrated that dioxins are commonly produced in virtually any combustion environment and that great quantities of chloride are not needed. In fact, seemingly innocuous materials, such as yard trimmings and paper products contribute to dioxins formation, the council says.

The U.S. Interagency Working Group, Washington, D.C., also reports that 95 percent of dioxin exposure occurs through the consumption of meat, eggs, milk and cheese. Although dioxin exposure occurs through direct inhalation, the larger risk to humans occurs when airborne particulates settle on soil and water and are then absorbed by crops or consumed by fish and cattle.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization's (WHO) 1999 report, “Dioxins and Their Effects on Human Health, Fact Sheet No. 225,” states that “the only consistent health effect linked to short-term, high-level dioxin exposure is a skin condition known as chloracne.” But research also states that a lower, long-term exposure is linked to adverse effects on the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions.

Because of the potential damage trash burning can cause human health, finding reasonable cost-effective and environmental strategies for waste disposal is essential. Assessing a community's solid waste infrastructure, discovering alternative solutions to backyard burning, implementing regulations and providing enforcement also are needed to eliminate backyard burning.

Organizations such as RCAP and the EPA can provide rural communities with the technical assistance and education they lack. Advancements in research and additions to funding should help extinguish backyard burning for good.