Department of Environmental Conservation

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Don't Trash Our Air

Burning Trash Causes Pollution and Health Risks

Burning household trash, whether in an open pit, burn barrel or a wood stove, is illegal, unhealthy, unneighborly, and unnecessary. It causes:

Smoke coming out of a smoldering burn barrel
  • serious health concerns and diseases,
  • wildfires,
  • contaminated soil, and
  • interfers with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.

The Problem with Burn Barrels

Burn barrels are a very dirty way to dispose of trash. They produce polluted air because fires in barrels are rarely hotter than 500°F. That's not hot enough for complete combustion, and incomplete combustion leads to contaminated, harmful smoke and soot.

DEC has lots of information about reducing, reusing, and recycling scrap materials, trash, and other waste you generate at home. Learn how to manage fallen leaves without burning, how to properly dispose of household hazardous waste, how to produce less trash - and much, much more.

Everyone is at Risk

People, pets, and wildlife who are exposed to smoke, especially those with heart and lung conditions, experience a variety of symptoms, including:

  • burning eyes and nose
  • coughing
  • nausea
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • asthma attacks

The smoke from trash fires can also deposit chemicals on lawns, gardens, and soil, which endangers people who eat fruit and vegetables grown near the fire or in gardens tilled with the toxic ashes. Young children may be at greater risk than adults because of their playing behaviors, small size, and developing bodies.

The Pollutants in the Smoke

Here are some of the air pollutants emitted by common types of trash when they're burned, with their potential health risks:

If you burn... it creates... which may cause...
Plastic Hydrogen chloride corrosion to the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes; respiratory tract irritation; chronic bronchitis
Plastic, synthetic fibers Hydrogen cyanide neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular, and thyroid disorders
Plastics, petroleum products Formaldehyde eye, nose and throat irritation, difficulty in breathing, skin rashes, cancer
Plastics, paper, pesticide containers,
petroleum products, styrofoam
Dioxins and furans immune suppressions, hormone system disruption, cancer
Plastics, petroleum products, styrofoam Benzene leukemia
Plastics, pesticide containers, petroleum products Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons cancer
Leaves Particulate matter respiratory problems, cardiac arrhythmia, heart attacks
Leaves Carbon monoxide reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood
Treated wood Arsenic gastrointestinal problems, anemia, kidney and liver disease, cancer
Treated wood Lead heart and kidney disease, brain damage, reduced fertility,
developmental disabilities
Batteries, treated wood Cadmium lung damage, kidney disease
Batteries, treated wood Mercury nervous system and kidney damage
Batteries Chromium respiratory effects, cancer

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