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Don't Trash Our Air

Burning Trash: Pollutants and Health Risks

Illegal backyard burning is a common method to dispose of trash and yard waste, particularly in rural areas. Besides increasing the likelihood of wildfires, burning trash creates air pollution and the left over ash contains toxic residue. In addition to the recognized public health impact, the smoke and odors from backyard burning presents a serious quality of life issue by unreasonably interfering with an individual's comfortable enjoyment of life or property. DEC's regional offices receive numerous complaints regarding smoke and odors from backyard burning. New York State regulation Part 215 prohibits open burning of trash statewide and burning of yard waste in many areas of the state.

Smoldering burn barrels release dangerous toxins into the air

Past generations burned their household trash, but it did not contain plastics, foils, batteries, paper (which is bleached with chlorine) and other materials. Even burning paper today can release dioxins into the air. Burning household trash, whether in an open pit, burn barrel or a wood stove, is illegal, unhealthy, unneighborly and unnecessary.

What's Wrong with Burn Barrels?

Burn barrels smolder and temperatures rarely exceed 500 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes incomplete combustion and releases greater amounts of harmful chemicals into the air. Permitted incinerators operate at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to insure complete combustion, and they use efficient filters to reduce harmful emissions. A study by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the NYS Department of Health (DOH) and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) measured the types and amounts of many chemicals in the smoke from burn barrels. For some of those chemicals, burning about 10 pounds of trash a day in a household burn barrel may produce as much air pollution as a modern, well-controlled incinerator burning 400,000 pounds of trash a day.

Burn barrels release large quantities of dioxins and furans which are considered some of the most toxic man-made compounds. The EPA estimated the emissions of dioxins and furans from a variety of sources in the US. As the pie chart shows, emissions of dioxins and furans (on a toxicity-weighted basis) from backyard burning alone are estimated to be greater than for all other sources combined for the years 2002-2004.

What's in the Smoke?

Pie graph showing how backyard barrel burning was responsible for emitting 57% of dioxins and furans in the US from 2002-04

It is difficult to tell exactly all the compounds that are released from an individual burn barrel. What comes out depends on the types of trash that went in, the temperature of the fire and the availability of oxygen. Here are some of the air pollutants that have been found in the smoke from a burn barrel and their potential health risks:

  • Dioxins and furans (immune suppressions, hormone system disruption, cancer)
  • Benzene (leukemia)
  • Formaldehyde (eye, nose and throat irritant, difficulty in breathing, skin rashes, cancer)
  • Particulate matter (respiratory problems, cardiac arrhythmia, heart attacks)
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (cancer)
  • Hydrogen chloride (corrosive to the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes, may cause respiratory tract irritation and chronic bronchitis)
  • Hydrogen cyanide (neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular, and thyroid effects)
  • Carbon monoxide (reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood)
  • Ash which may contain the following heavy metals:
    • Cadmium (lung damage, kidney disease)
    • Arsenic (gastrointestinal problems, anemia, kidney and liver disease, cancer)
    • Mercury (nervous system and kidney damage)
    • Chromium (respiratory effects, cancer)

When These Materials are Illegally Burned They Give Off Toxins*

Batteries - heavy metals like cadmium, lead, mercury

Plastics - dioxins, volatile organic compounds and halogenated hydrocarbons

Treated wood - arsenic and heavy metals, plus the ash is very toxic. (Treated wood includes deck lumber, railroad ties, and telephone poles treated with chromated copper arsenate, creosote or pentachlorophenol)

Paper- dioxins

Pesticide containers - pesticide residuals, dioxins, volatile organic compounds, halogenated hydrocarbons

Leaves - carbon monoxide and particulate matter

Petroleum products - dioxins, volatile organic compounds and halogenated hydrocarbons

Styrofoam/polystyrene - benzene, dioxins and furans

* This is not a comprehensive list of toxins emitted, just a partial listing.

Who is at Risk?

Smoke from any fire can affect your health, your family's health and your neighbors' health. The smoke from backyard burning is released close to the ground where people can easily breathe it. The smoke from the fire can also deposit chemicals on garden vegetables and garden soil. People can be exposed to those chemicals by eating fruits and vegetables grown near the trash fire or in garden soil tilled with the toxic ashes. Young children may be at greater risk than adults because of their playing behaviors, their small size and their developing bodies.

The chances of developing health effects from contact (exposure) with smoke from backyard or burn barrel fires depends on how much smoke a person contacts, how a person is exposed (e.g., breathing the smoke or eating vegetables affected by the smoke) and how long and often the person is exposed. Some people may be more or less sensitive than others to chemicals in smoke. People exposed to smoke could experience burning eyes and nose, coughing, nausea, headaches, or dizziness. Some people find the odors produced by burn barrels disagreeable, and they may experience discomfort, headaches, and nausea. Smoke can trigger asthma attacks. People with heart and lung conditions are at greater risks for health effects. Repeated exposures to pollutants in burn barrel smoke may occur when people burn trash on a regular basis and this may increase the risk of chronic health problems. Also, unattended burn barrels or backyard burning can cause accidental fires in surrounding areas.

Information from the EPA/DOH/DEC study showed that smoke from burning trash contains particulate matter, carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, benzene, styrene, formaldehyde, arsenic, lead, chromium, benzo(a)pyrene, dioxins, furans, and PCBs. Some of these chemicals are found in smoke from any fire. Although substances such as particulate matter, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde can cause immediate health effects with enough exposure, some chemicals such as dioxin can build up in foods and in your body. Some of these chemicals can remain on your property (for example, soil outside and dust inside your home).

Additional Information

For more information about waste disposal or burning regulations, contact your DEC Regional Air Pollution Control Engineer.

For more information about health effects and exposure to chemicals, contact the DOH, Center for Environmental Health at (800) 458-1158.

To report environmental law violations, call 1-844-DEC-ECOs (1-844-332-3267).

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