Household burn barrels, fire pits, wood stoves, or similar homemade devices produce low-temperature fires. They receive very little oxygen and produce a lot of smoke. Under these conditions, a variety of toxic substances is produced.
Pollutants produced by backyard burning of trash are released primarily into the air, and close to ground level where they are easily inhaled—with no pollution controls!
Burn barrel air emissions include carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Smaller amounts of more poisonous chemicals are commonly detected in the smoke: benzene, styrene, formaldehyde, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs or "dioxins"), polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs or "furans"), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and arsenic.
Smoke created by backyard garbage burning especially affects people with sensitive respiratory systems, as well as children and the elderly. Exposure to smoke can also increase the risk of heart disease, cause rashes, nausea, and headaches.
Read more on the health risks of smoke and particulates.
Dioxin. Among the environmental and health risks posed by residential garbage burning, dioxin is the key concern. Dioxin is a potent human carcinogen that is especially harmful for pregnant women, children, and the elderly. Dioxin is also an endocrine disrupter and can cause reproductive, developmental, and immunological problems in humans and animals.
U.S. EPA research shows that burn barrels are the #1 source of dioxin in the U.S. Just one burn barrel can produce as much or more than a full-scale municipal waste combustor burning 200 tons/day.
Read more about dioxins:
- Facts about dioxins (Minnesota Dept of Health)
- An Inventory of Sources and Environmental Releases of Dioxin-Like Compounds in the U.S. for the Years 1987, 1995, and 2000
- Dioxins produced by backyard burning (U.S. EPA)