Information on burn barrels, open burning, backyard burning
Burning trash in a 55 gallon drum or in just a pile, often in the backyard, is a common method of solid waste disposal in some rural areas.
Surveys have revealed between 25 and 50 percent of rural residences and farms may do backyard burning.
Materials "burned" range from all household trash including plastics, glass and metal, to a more selective burning of just paper items. However, with today's wastes, it is very difficult to keep plastics out of even carefully sorted paper-only waste. Envelope windows are usually plastic, as are some inserts in junk mail. Paper packaging often has plastic coatings.
Backyard burning is by definition "uncontrolled" burning and results in very high levels of toxic chemicals emitted in the smoke. Compared to municipal incinerators it takes place at much lower temperatures, with virtually no combustion air control, and with none of the very expensive high-tech pollution filtering apparatus required before the incinerator stack.
Very high levels of toxic chemicals and particulates are present in the smoke from open burning of waste. These may cause acute respiratory and other health problems in those breathing the smoke.
Burning plastics can be especially problematic, with PVC plastic in particular contributing to high emissions of dioxin. Dioxin is a persistent, bioaccumulative toxin which means it isn't broken down into safer chemicals, and it is concentrated in the food chain. As dioxin in burn barrel smoke drifts away to eventually settle on nearby fields, it can be eaten by cows where it is concentrated in their fat. Some is then excreted with the milk while the rest remains in the animal's fat. When humans consume dairy products and meat they end up with the long-lived dioxin in their own bodies. The US EPA now considers burn barrels a major source of dioxin. They also consider that current dioxin levels in Americans, due to consumption of dairy and meat, are high enough to add a significant cancer risk, as well as other serious health risks.
Open burning can also be a significant fire risk, with frequent brush, forest, and structure fires attributed to burning which got out of control. Deaths have even resulted from such fires.
A number of national, state, and local organizations are working on educating the public on the risks of backyard burning. The federal government does not currently have laws or regulations addressing this problem. However, numerous states and localities have banned open burning, and the list is growing rapidly.
The problem of open burning may have increased in recent years because the cost of proper disposal of solid waste has risen and is more likely to be charged by weight and to the individual. Recycling and proper waste disposal have also become less convenient in many areas. Therefore, part of the solution to open burning will be improvements in convenience and affordability of local solid waste management systems.
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