Trash Burning Can Threaten Human Health

  • Burning trash smells bad and it can create the conditions necessary to produce dioxin. If livestock are exposed to that dioxin, it can get into the meat and milk we consume, creating health risks. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance)

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 know, but
they’re considered to be very dangerous to human health in the tiniest

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

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

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

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 GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

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