Health and Environmental Concerns Related to Open Burning

Posted By: Waste Disposal,

The practice of burning the family’s garbage has been a tradition for generations of Minnesotans. Until a few decades ago, the practice was much less dangerous to your health, since most household garbage contained primarily paper, wood, and glass. However, modern garbage is a mix of plastics and other synthetics that release a hazardous mixture of carcinogens and other toxins when burned. Even seemingly harmless items, like white office paper and the lightweight-paperboard boxes used for pop and frozen pizzas, can give off toxic emissions that can cause serious environmental and health problems.


Burn barrel fire temperatures rarely exceed 500°F, far below the level for complete combustion, and lack filtration entirely; because of this they emit a much larger quantity of toxins and ash. For each pound of garbage burned in a burn barrel, twice as many furans, 17 times as much dioxin, and 40 times as much ash is given off compared to the emissions from the same pound of garbage burned in a resource recovery facility.

Besides ash (particulate), furans, dioxins, and other halogenated hydrocarbons, burn barrels give off high levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, mercury, barium, chromium, and cadmium. Together, these chemicals can cause a wide variety of health problems, from mild irritation to chronic and deadly diseases. Most of these pollutants need not be directly inhaled from the smoke of burning garbage to be harmful; some of these toxins remain in the immediate vicinity and the area downwind of the burn barrel for decades. Other toxins in the ash and emissions gradually work their way into our ground water. This accumulation exposes you, your family, property and even future generations living on the same land to ever-increasing levels of hazardous substances.


Dioxin is one of the many pollutants given off from illegal burning. Dioxin is a catchall term for three chemical groups: true dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The most dangerous form of dioxin – 2,3,7,8 -tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (or its abbreviation, 2378 – TCDD) – has been called “the most lethal human-made poison.” Its toxicity is second only to radioactive waste; just three ounces would be enough to kill one million people. Even at levels less than one part per billion, it can cause serious health impairments. It was once used in Agent Orange, the Vietnam-era herbicide that continues to cause health problems for many American veterans exposed over thirty years ago. Dioxin contamination at Love Canal (Niagara Falls, NY) forced hundreds of families to abandon their homes.Given off in large quantities by burning plastics and paper, dioxin accumulates in the soil in areas surrounding burn barrels. Ground-level concentrations of dioxin resulting from burning household garbage in a burn barrel are 7,000 times more then the amount formed when garbage is burned in a resource recovery facility. Slow to break down, dioxins linger for centuries in the affected area and are absorbed into plants that grow in the contaminated soil. Animals that eat these plants absorb the dioxin, and ultimately dioxin makes its way to humans who eat the animals or crops grown in this soil. Dioxin does not break down or pass out of our bodies; it accumulates in our fat cells.

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, barium, chromium and cadmium move through the soil into the ground water and cause a host of serious health problems when taken internally. Lead accumulates in blood, bones, and soft body tissues, where it affects the kidneys, central nervous system, and all blood-forming organs. It eventually causes brain damage, mental retardation, seizures, and behavioral disorders. Cadmium, used in metal plating and in batteries, can cause kidney and bone-marrow diseases and emphysema. Mercury can be absorbed through the lungs, mouth, or skin, as well as from eating mercury contaminated fish. It affects the brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver; the nervous system and one’s ability to feel, taste and move.

Ash & Other Particulates

Ash and other particulate matter can irritate the eyes and throat; damage the lungs; cause bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer, and restrict visibility. It can seriously affect people with asthma or certain allergies. Burn barrel ash laden with heavy metals is particularly toxic, and often seeps into ground water.

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Posted By: Waste Disposal,

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