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Preventing Household Burning of Trash

April, 02 2009 at 11:44 AM  account icon posted by Robert Arner   image 5 comments »

Can anyone share any good information regarding ways to discourage the backyard burning of trash? This commonly happens in rural areas and is difficult to stop. For example,Virginia's solid waste and air regulations make certain accommodations for open burning of household waste. Any social marketing ideas or education tips regarding this is welcomed since also folks burn certain things such as packaging, magazines and paper with heavy metals in their wood stoves. I am looking for info to instruct citizens of what not to burn. Burning of trash can increase the risk of heart disease, aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema. Backyard burning also produce harmful quantities of dioxins, a group of highly toxic chemicals that settle on crops and in our waterways where they eventually wind up in our food and affect our health.

Robert  Arner
Recovery Enterprises
United States


5 Comments Sorted by:

1 Shenagh Gambleaccount icon View Profile Posted on April, 03 2009 at 01:41 AM

Hi Robert,

I'm looking at a similar issue here in Australia, in remote communities in the Northern Territory. Interestingly, a colleague of mine has drawn a lot of information from work done by the US EPA with Alaskan communities. Despite completely opposite temperatures, we are looking at a lot of similar issues.

I'll attempt to upload some of the information that my colleague has here from the US EPA & Alaskan projects.

In the next 6 months I will be looking at reducing burning in communities here, so will be pleased to share my experiences with you.

Also be great to hear about others' experiences.

Good luck!

Shenagh Gamble
Sustainability Programs Coordinator
Local Government Association (NT)



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2 Doug McKenzie-Mohraccount icon View Profile Posted on April, 03 2009 at 07:33 AM


I've attached two reports that you might find helpful (Note: You have to view attachments via the online forums rather than through the email digest). The first is a study conducted in the Province of Ontario that identifies who is burning garbage and why. The second is a proposed pilot study that David Dilks and I developed to combat backyard burning. Hope you find these helpful.

Doug McKenzie-Mohr
Environmental Psychologist
McKenzie-Mohr & Associates Inc.



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3 Angela Shambaughaccount icon View Profile Posted on April, 03 2009 at 09:57 AM

Vermont has an anti-burning law. You may find this website useful: The program is run out of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. For more information you can contact Corie Dunn (email: who should be able to put you in touch with the people running the outreach efforts.

Angela Shambaugh
Vermont Dept. of Environmental Conservation
United States

4 Denise Strommeaccount icon View Profile Posted on April, 03 2009 at 10:12 AM

In Minnesota, the MN Pollution Control Agency has an ongoing "Stop backyard burning" campaign. Go to to see the campaign. The links on the left of the page give you more specifics and resources to use when addressing the issue of backyard burning. Good luck with your efforts.

Denise Stromme
MN Pollution Control Agency
United States

5 Robert Arneraccount icon View Profile Posted on April, 08 2009 at 10:34 AM

Denise, Angela, Doug and Shenagh, Thank you so much for your information. I have some web connections down below and at the end is a recent CNN article on how burning trash is affecting the U.S. troops overseas. I will also follow-up with my EPA contact. In about a week or so I will give you some specific findings. Much gratitude to your interest and help. Regards, Rob

Household Burning Fact Sheet and Articles of Interest

Backyard Burning
Backyard burning refers to the burning of household trash by residents on their own property. Trash typically burned can include paper, cardboard, food scraps, plastics, and yard trimmings-essentially any materials that would otherwise be recycled or sent to a landfill. Burning usually occurs in a burn barrel, homemade burn box, wood stove, outdoor boiler, or open pit. Air emissions from backyard burning are released directly to the atmosphere without being treated or filtered.
It's a Health Hazard
Most people who burn their waste do not realize how harmful this practice is to their health and to the environment. Current research indicates that backyard burning is far more harmful to our health than previously thought. It can increase the risk of heart disease, aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema, and cause rashes, nausea, or headaches. Backyard burning also produce harmful quantities of dioxins, a group of highly toxic chemicals that settle on crops and in our waterways where they eventually wind up in our food and affect our health. The Human Health page provides more information about the dangers of dioxin.
Burn Barrel Science
Typically, dioxins do not exist in materials before they are incinerated, but are produced when waste is burned. Significantly higher levels of dioxins are created by burning trash in burn barrels than in municipal incinerators. Household burn barrels receive limited oxygen, and thus burn at fairly low temperatures, producing not only dioxins, but a great deal of smoke and other pollutants. Unlike the barrels and boxes used in backyard burning, large incinerators are required by EPA regulations to have stringent pollution control systems that reduce dioxin emissions primarily by preventing their formation. Backyard burning is also particularly dangerous because it releases pollutants at ground level where they are more readily inhaled or incorporated into the food chain. For more information on dioxin formation and sources, visit EPA's Draft Dioxin Reassessment.
--------------------------------------- American Chemistry Council
What is backyard trash burning?
In many rural areas, where trash pick-up is not provided as a municipal service, families dispose of their household waste by burning it outdoors, commonly in 55 gallon steel barrels or sometimes directly on the ground.
A World of Difference: Backyard Trash Burning vs. Municipal Combustion
In contrast to municipal combustors, which operate under highly controlled conditions designed to reduce formation and emission of air pollutants, backyard trash burning is uncontrolled. The low temperature burning and smoldering conditions typical of backyard trash fires promote the formation of air pollutants including polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and dibenzofurans, sometimes collectively called "dioxins", fine particulate matter and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These pollutants form during backyard trash burning regardless of the composition of the material being burned. Modern combustors, on the other hand, are designed to burn waste efficiently at high temperatures and to minimize the conditions known to promote the formation of these combustion byproducts. Additionally, pollution control devices required on combustors remove many residual harmful substances before they are released into the atmosphere.

Scientific experiments show, however, that eliminating PVC from household waste does not prevent formation of dioxins. Rather, dioxin generation from backyard trash fires correlates best with variables related to combustion such as temperature and carbon monoxide. 6

What's more, dioxins are commonly produced in virtually any combustion environment, and great quantities of chloride are not needed to produce them. In fact, a teaspoon of table salt contains 1,000 times as much chloride as is incorporated in the daily dioxin emissions of a typical municipal waste combustor. 7 Even backyard burning of leaves or paper produces pollutants, including dioxins.
If, instead of sending their trash to the waste-to-energy facility, Lee County residents burned their trash in backyard fires, they would generate SIX TIMES as much dioxin as the total amount of dioxins generated from ALL 167 large unit US municipal waste combustors in the year 2000. 8
Why is trash burning a concern?
 All open burning activities produce smoke, which contains harmful pollutants - some of which are toxic.
 Smoke from five pounds of leaves contains about one pound of air pollution.
 Open burning contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone is a harmful pollutant that damages human health, vegetation and buildings.
 Open burning can cause health problems including eye, nose and throat irritation; lung irritation and congestion; shortness of breath and coughing; stomach or intestinal upset; headaches or memory loss; skin irritations or burns; and eye damage.
 Repeated exposure to smoke can also cause developmental problems in children and increase people's chances of getting cancer.
 Children, the elderly, those with lung problems and pregnant or nursing women may suffer more serious health effects than other adults.
Open Blaze
By Jessica Pierce, staff writer, Daily Messenger Wed Aug 27, 2008
Modern trash can be a toxic mix of foam cups, glossy paper, plastic wrap, synthetic rubber and pressure-treated wood, and that burning it creates pollution.

- Though a single backyard fire might not seem like much, state officials say burning 10 pounds of household trash a day may produce as much air pollution as a modern incinerator burning 400,000 pounds a day.
-------------------------------------------------- March 17, 2009
VA to look into effects of 'burn pits' on veterans by Adam Levine
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Department of Veterans Affairs says it will study the effects of toxic emissions from burning trash at military installations in Iraq and Afghanistan on veterans, even after the Department of Defense has concluded no long-term effects exist.

Robert  Arner
Recovery Enterprises
United States