What makes backyard burning a problem?

Backyard burning is a problem today because the items that are being burned are dangerous to our health.  Today’s trash contains plastics, heavy metal, and a variety of synthetic materials.  When items like these are burned a chemical reaction takes place and various poisons and dioxins are released into the air.  When trash is burned in a burn barrel, woodstove, in piles, and small incinerators, there is not a high enough temperature to destroy these poisons.  Also, there is not enough oxygen to burn the material effectively and no safeguards to capture the toxins in the smoke.  The biggest problem is that all of this smoke, containing toxins, is released at ground level where it can contaminate where we live, work, and play.



  • Municipal incinerators (right) burn at a temperature over 1800 degrees Fahrenheit and add enough oxygen to effectively burn the materials.  These incinerators destroy most of the toxins and the majority of the remaining toxins are caught in the smokestack. Any toxins that are left over go high into the atmosphere and are diluted before they ever come back down to us and we breathe them in.  It is for these reasons that it is better to have items burned in a municipal incinerator and not in your back yard.
  • It only takes 5 ounces of burning PVC to give off enough hydrogen chloride gas to kill the occupants in an average size bedroom in ten minutes.
  • One pound of waste that is burned domestically emits over 40 times the pollutants emitted from burning one pound of waste in an EPA-compliant municipal waste combustor.
  • The amount of dioxin released by the backyard burning of 20 families for a year is equal to the amount of dioxin released by an incinerator serving 150,000 families in a year.



When you do backyard burning toxic particles can enter through your eyes, nose, and through capillaries in your lungs.  Most healthy people can develop reactions that include burning eyes, headaches, nausea, fatigued, and dizziness.  If the amount of toxins is high enough people can develop an allergic hypersensitivity.  Because of their body size and inhaling more air per pound of their body mass children can be at an even greater risk.  Children’s bodies are more susceptible to harm from heavy metals such as, mercury, lead, and cadmium found in the smoke of backyard burns.  Also backyard burning can have severe effects on people with emphysema and can cause severe bronchioconstriction in asthmatics.

One example of how backyard burning can affect your health is through the burning of #3 plastics, which is PVC (polyvinyl chloride containers).  When burning PVC hydrogen gas will be released in the smoke.  If hydrogen gas enters your lungs it can cause fluid build up and possible ulceration in your respiratory tract.



Polyvinylchlorides PVC is used in the making of bottles and jugs, a variety of food, household, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products, children’s toys, blister and shrink packs, vinyl tubing, flooring and siding materials, drainpipe, vinyl fabrics and many other products.  When burned PVC produces carbon monoxide, dioxins, and chlorinated furans.  Dioxins and furans are two of the most toxic man-made products because the lowest amount of either product can cause diseases such as, cancer and birth defects.  Burning PVC can also cause hydrochloric acid in your lungs and cause possible ulceration of your respiratory tract.

Polystyrene and styrenes These come from foam cups, bait containers, meat trays, egg cartons, some packaging “peanuts”, yogurt and deli containers, clear plastic cookie trays, plastic forks, and spoons, and photographic film.  Styrene gas can be absorbed through your skin, respiratory system, and gastrointestinal tract.  High doses can cause narcosis and/or death.  The vapor is able to damage the eyes and mucous membrane.  In 1990 it became listed as a hazardous air pollutant.

PolyurethanesProducts include drapes, furniture foams, wood finishes, sealants, and adhesives.  These burned products produce a yellow cloud of smoke and varying amounts of hydrogen cyanide and phosgene.  An exposure to high concentrations of hydrogen gas for 30-60 minutes can cause death.

Bleached Paper ProductsThese are white packaging materials and paperboards (includes frozen food, bakery and pizza boxes, any light weight cardboard that is white).  The burning of these materials releases carbon compounds with chlorine and fluorine called halogenated hydrocarbons.  These compounds have been associated with blood abnormalities, low white cells, leukemia, and liver damage if you are exposed to high doses.

Slick colored papers and cardboardsSynthetic inks that are used contain heavy metals.  Absorbing heavy metals has been linked to birth defects, interference with red blood cell production, liver and kidney deterioration and loss of coordination.

Pressure treated woodThis contains arsenic and chromium compounds and can cause the same effects as burning heavy metals.



PrecycleBuy recyclable products rather than ones you will burn to get rid of.

CompostLet your yard debris and food waste decay.  There are some great and easy ways to do this just contact your local Cooperative Extension Service.

ReduceReduce the amount of “junk” mail you receive.  Tell companies not to put your name on their mailing list.

ReuseThink before your burn if the item can be reused, fixed, or salvaged.

RecycleRecycling has come a long way.  You can now recycle such items as newspaper, magazines, “junk” mail, glass, metal, and plastics.  Contact your local recycling center for more information.

Properly Dispose Of WasteDo not litter, dump, or burn your waste items.  Use a waste collection service, transfer station, convenience center, or local landfill.



Thanks to the teamwork of government regulators, industry officials, and environmental organizations toxic levels have been significantly decreasing.  Unfortunately, backyard burning still remains as a huge barrier to minimizing toxic levels in the air we breathe.  By organizations, companies, and the public working together we can all continue to make our air safer and cleaner to breathe for us and our future generations.



EPA’s Backyard Burning Website  www.epa.gov/msw/backyard

Earth 911 www.earth911.org or Call 1-800-CLEANUP

Chlorine Chemistry Council  www.dioxinfacts.org/sources_trends/trash_burning.html