Why you shouldn't ever burn garbage

By Halie Kines, AccuWeather staff writer

Before garbage disposal sites were readily accessible to the public, it was common for people in rural areas to burn their garbage, also known as backyard burning. But what they might not realize is that it isn't safe for your health or the surrounding environment.

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When someone burns garbage, it typically takes place in his/her backyard in a burn barrel or an open pit. It saves time and effort compared to bringing it to a disposal site, and it could also save individuals money as he/she doesn't have to pay for a waste collection service.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in the past, backyard burning may have been the only way for some people living in rural areas to dispose of their waste.

But today, most people have access to a garbage collection service or a drop-off center. Backyard burning has even been banned by many state and local governments.

Backyard burning has many health risks. According to the EPA, it can increase the risk of heart disease and cause asthma to flare up. It can also make you nauseous or give you a headache.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, long-term exposure to pollutants from backyard burning could lead to cancer and emphysema.

Backyard burning releases pollutants at a low, ground level. This is harmful because pollutants can easily be inhaled or mixed into the food chain. Beyond that, backyard burning also produces large amounts of dioxins.

Dioxins, according to the EPA, are a "group of 30 highly toxic chlorinated organic chemicals." It only takes a very small amount of chlorinated material to create dioxins. Dioxins can settle on crops and get in your food and water. This can negatively affect your health.

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Dioxins don't usually exist in materials, such as waste, before they are incinerated, according to the EPA. They are produced when the waste is burned. This is still the case when waste is burned in municipal incinerators, but much higher levels occur in burn barrels.

According to the EPA, the municipal incinerators follow regulations that make sure their systems control dioxin emissions by mostly preventing them from forming.

Burn barrels in backyards don't receive a lot of oxygen and therefore, burn at low temperatures. This produces dioxins along with a lot of smoke and other pollutants.

Other pollutants include particulate matter, lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide and hexachlorobenzene. These can cause respiratory illnesses, damage to the nervous system, kidney and liver. They could also cause reproductive/developmental disorders.

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Ash particulates are also a health concern. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, it can irritate your eyes and throat. It can also reduce visibility. It can cause damage to your lungs, causing bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection notes that it may have been safer in the past to burn waste. This is due to the contents of waste being different.

In the past, the majority of household garbage was paper and glass. Today with new synthetic materials, plastics and metal cans making up the majority of the garbage, so burning is more dangerous as it produces dangerous toxins when burned.

Beyond health concerns, backyard burning also damages the environment. According to the EPA, it creates toxic compounds such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particle pollution.

Nitrogen oxides are nitrogen compounds that contribute to acid rain. Nitrogen oxides can also cause global warming, damage to the ozone and smog.

"Carbon monoxide chemically reacts with sunlight to create harmful ozone," according to the EPA. It can reduce air quality. According to the EPA, backyard burning in a burn barrel/pile creates more carbon monoxide than decomposition in a landfill.

Particle pollution is the small particles that form smoke. They reduce visibility and create haze. Haze is an air pollutant in many rural areas.

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