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State burn bans will reduce health risks, wildfires

October 21, 2009

On Oct. 14, a statewide ban on burning trash went into effect in New York. The ban makes it illegal to use a burn barrel or open pits as a means for incinerating trash.

New York enacted a burn ban for larger municipalities in 1972, but rural towns and villages with populations under 20,000 were exempted from that regulation. In an effort to curb the amount of toxic chemicals released into our air, that is now changed.

While it may seem fairly reasonable to assume that the burning of a little household garbage is essentially harmless, in actuality even the burning of clean trash, such as unpainted wood or woody yard debris and vegetation (limbs, twigs, lawn clippings leaves and weeds) can present some risk, especially to children, the elderly and people with pre-existing respiratory illnesses such as asthma. In fact, burning yard waste puts some of the same toxic and carcinogenic chemicals into the air as burning garbage does. And even the cleanest yard waste, unless it is completely dry, often smolders and burns at low temperatures, especially when it is burned in barrels.

Add paper and cardboard, and it can become far worse. We may think of these as clean, but just stop for a second and consider the inks, dyes and chemicals that are used in the manufacturing of paper and paper products and in the printing and gluing processes.

The risk to our health increases tremendously when unclean trash (plastic, rubber, treated wood, motor oil, diapers, cloth, upholstery, foam cushions, construction debris, floor coverings, household chemicals, aluminum cans, etc.) is burned. The release and/or formation of dangerous chemical combinations (dioxins, furans, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, hydrogen cyanide and formaldehyde, just to name a few) is inevitable.

When inhaled, some of these chemical compounds can immediately cause eye, nose and throat irritation and other acute respiratory symptoms including coughing, wheezing and chest pain. Others can accumulate, causing respiratory infection or long-term respiratory illness including distress and difficulty breathing, fluid build up, bronchitis, asthma, emphysema and possibly ulceration of the respiratory tract.

There is also the possibility of immune system changes, pneumonia, hormone disruption, birth defects, developmental abnormalities and diseases that can be fatal, such as lung cancer.

Burning trash also releases heavy metal vapors, acid gasses and toxic chemicals that remain suspended in the smoke. The simple act of inhaling that smoke can cause these carcinogens to become trapped in the lungs.

What's more, burning trash releases dangerous elements such as lead, mercury and chromium that can accumulate in soil and in ground water. Particulates (extremely small solid or liquid particles) of these and other contaminates, including dioxins and furans, can travel hundreds of miles, polluting soils that are used for gardens and farm fields, possibly sickening livestock and contaminating the food supply. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 90 percent of the dioxins and furans found in humans enter our bodies through the consumption of food, mainly dairy, meat and fish.

Dioxins are second only to radioactive waste in toxicity. Furans are similar chemicals and are often found with dioxins. According to Paul Lemieux, Ph.D., a scientist at the EPA's National Risk Management Research Laboratory, "Open burning of household waste in barrels is potentially one of the largest sources of airborne dioxin and furan emissions in the United States, particularly as EPA standards force major reductions in emissions from municipal and medical waste incinerators." Some products, like treated wood, which are already contaminated with dioxins and furans, will actually produce larger amounts of these potentially deadly poisons when burned.

The most toxic of all man-made organic chemicals, dioxins and furans have been linked, among other things, to developmental delays in children. In fact, infants and young children, depending upon their stage of development, are considerably more susceptible to and face the greatest risk from the dangers associated with toxic exposure.

Now, consider this. Burning in barrels allows all of these pollutants to be released at full concentration at or near ground level, often in areas where children play and often over gardens, pastures, lakes, rivers and streams. What's more, burning trash also contributes to the formation of ozone, which enters the atmosphere and returns in rainfall, further contaminating soil and groundwater.

Aside from the pollution and health hazards, there are ample accounts of grass, brush and forest fires, structures burning and explosions that have resulted from burn barrel trash fires getting out of control. In fact, according to the DEC, open burning is the leading cause of wildfires in New York State.

There are certain limited exceptions included in this ruling. For example, small cook fires and campfires are permitted, as are barbecue grills, maple-sugar arches and similar outdoor cooking devices. To find out more about these and other exemptions, please contact the DEC or your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office. Keep in mind, too, that open burning without a written permit from the DEC is prohibited in any town that is totally or partially within the boundaries of the Adirondack Park.


Farmers affected can recycle ag plastics

Farmers will no longer be allowed to dispose of their used agricultural plastic (e.g. bale wrap, bunker cover, silage bags) by burning. In answer to this, the state has partnered with Cornell University to create a working program that will collect these plastics, as well as rigid plastics (e.g. empty pesticide, dairy soap and acid containers up to 55 gallons) for recycling. Farmers are encouraged to contact their local Soil and Water District or Cornell Cooperative Extension office to find out about participation in the Recycling Ag Plastics Project.

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