Trash Burning Can Threaten Human Health

For most of us, getting rid of the garbage is as simple as setting it at the curb. But not everyone can get garbage pick-up. So, instead, they burn their trash. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… that choice could be affecting your health:


For most of us, getting rid of the garbage is as simple as setting it at the curb. But not everyone
can get garbage pick-up. So, instead, they burn their trash. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Lester Graham reports… that choice could be affecting your health:

(sound of garbage trucks)

It’s not been that long ago that people everywhere but in the largest cities burned their trash in a
barrel or pit in the backyard. That’s not as often the case these days. Garbage trucks make their
appointed rounds in cities, small towns, and in some rural areas. But they don’t pick up
everywhere… or if they do offer service… it’s much more expensive because the pick-up is so far
out in the country.

Roger Booth lives in a rural area in southwestern Illinois. He says garbage pick-up is not an
option for him.

“Well, we burn it and then bury the ashes and things. We don’t have a good way to dispose of it
any other method. The cost of having pick up arranged is prohibitive.”

He burns his garbage in the backyard. Booth separates bottles and tin cans from the rest of the
garbage so that he doesn’t end up with broken glass and rusty cans scattered around. A lot of
people don’t do that much. They burn everything in a barrel and then dump the ashes and scrap in
a gully… or just burn everything in a gully or ditch. Booth says that’s the way most folks take
care of the garbage in the area. No one talks about the smoke or fumes put off by the burning.

“I haven’t ever thought much about that. So, I don’t suppose that I have any real concerns at this
moment. I don’t think I’m doing anything different than most people.”

And that’s what many people who burn their garbage say. A survey conducted by the Zenith
Research Group found that people in areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota who didn’t have regular
garbage collection believe burning is a viable option to get rid of their household and yard waste.
Nearly 45-percent of them indicated it was “convenient,” which the researchers interpreted to
mean that even if garbage pick-up were available, the residents might find more convenient to
keep burning their garbage.

While some cities and more densely populated areas have restricted backyard burning… state
governments in all but a handful of states in New England and the state of California have been
reluctant to put a lot of restrictions on burning barrels.

But backyard burning can be more than just a stinky nuisance. Burning garbage can bring
together all the conditions necessary to produce dioxin. Dioxin is a catch-all term that includes
several toxic compounds. The extent of their impact on human health is not completely known…
but they’re considered to be very dangerous to human health in the tiniest amounts.

Since most of the backyard burning is done in rural areas, livestock are exposed to dioxin and it
gets into the meat and milk that we consume.

John Giesy is with the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at Michigan State University.
He says as people burn garbage, the dioxins are emitted in the fumes and smoke…

“So, when they fall out onto the ground or onto the grass, then animals eat those plants and it
becomes part of their diet. And ultimately it’s accumulated into the animal and it’s stored as fat.
Now, particularly with dairy cattle, one of the concerns about being exposed to dioxins is that
then when they’re producing milk, milk has fat it in, it has butter fat in it. And the dioxins go
along with that.”

So, every time we drink milk, snack on cheese, or eat a hamburger, we risk getting a small dose
of dioxin. Beyond that, vegetables from a farmer’s garden, if not properly washed, could be
coated with dioxins. And even a miniscule amount of dioxin is risky.

John Giesy says chemical manufacturing plants and other sources of man-made dioxin have been
cleaned up. Now, backyard burning is the biggest source of dioxins produced by humans.

“So, now as we continue to strive to reduce the amount of dioxins in the environment and in our
food, this is one place where we can make an impact.”

“That’s the concern. That’s the concern, is that it’s the largest remaining source of produced

Dan Hopkins is with the Environmental Protection Agency. He says, collectively, backyard
burning produces 50 times the amount of dioxin as all the large and medium sized incinerators
across the nation combined. That’s because the incinerators burn hot enough to destroy dioxins
and have pollution control devices to limit emissions. Backyard burning doesn’t get nearly that
hot and the smoke and fumes spread unchecked.

The EPA wants communities to take the problem of backyard burning seriously. It wants state
and local governments to do more to make people aware that backyard burning is contaminating
our food and encourage them to find other ways to get rid of their garbage…

“(It) probably won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, but by exchanging successful efforts that other
communities have had, we should be able to help communities fashion approaches that have a
high probability of success.”

But… public education efforts are expensive… and often they don’t reach the people who most
need to hear them. The EPA is not optimistic that it will see everyone stop burning their garbage.
It’s not even a goal. The agency is just hoping enough people will find other ways to get rid of
their trash that the overall dioxin level in food is reduced.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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