Say goodbye to this rite of spring: burn barrels
Call it another old-school tradition going to the wayside – and with good riddance. Actually, it’s not going fast enough!
It used to be that throughout the year one could find billows of smoke rising from the landscape accompanied by a pungent odor hanging in the air. Spring cleaning in rural areas would typically involve burning garbage in a backyard burning barrel.
Check the backyards of a few neighbors and you’ll still find a few burning barrels sitting around gathering rust. They might be remnants from the past but there’s very little nostalgia around burning garbage. Burning barrels represent a practice that was dangerous for the health of humans, animals and the ecosystem – and illegal.
It’s been illegal since 1969 to burn your garbage – lawmakers knew about how dangerous it was to do that back then but there are still people who do it on a regular basis and don’t see anything wrong with it.
There is no way to determine how many people in any given area are still using a burning barrel for some or all of their trash but any number is too much. The biggest goal of communities should be to use local disposal services for all types of trash and hazardous items.
The dangers of a burning barrel come from the relative coolness of the fire. Anybody who has accidentally touched the side of an active burning barrel would barely call it “cold” but in the world of garbage incineration, burning barrels do not burn very hot.
Waste management experts agree that burning barrels don’t produce complete combustion of the material, at least not enough to disintegrate the material. So everything that goes up comes down pretty quickly.
Everything coming down means it comes down on a burning barrel user’s property, neighbor’s property, or in the nearby lake. It’s possible that somebody could be burning toxins and not know it. They are putting those toxins right into the lake’s ecosystem.
Burning barrel air emissions include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. 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 in a burning barrel can increase the risk of heart disease, cause rashes, nausea and headaches. Dioxins emitted are a carcinogen and can harm everybody but especially pregnant women, children and the elderly. It can also contribute to a whole list of reproductive, developmental and immune-deficiency disorders.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has conducted research showing that one burning barrel can produce as much pollution, and in some cases more, than a full-scale municipal waste combustor burning 200 tons a day. Municipal waste combustors burn at a much higher temperature and a series of filters “scrubs” the exhaust.
Even commonly combustible items like cardboard, paper plates, plastic utensils, newsprint and cardboard contain toxins that burning releases. Those toxins enter the air and don’t travel far and they also exist in the ash left behind.
Once on the ground, toxins easily seep into the groundwater where rural residents get their water. Those toxins also enter our lakes and rivers through the water table and run-off.
While there is a fee to dispose of a burning barrel, not to mention extra garbage, it’s a standard solid waste charge based on weight. Contact your county or city waste management coordinator for details and resources.