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Human Health

Burning trash in the open produces many pollutants, including:

Many dangerous health conditions can be caused by inhaling or ingesting even small amounts of these pollutants. Small children, the elderly, or people with preexisting respiratory conditions can be especially vulnerable to some of these pollutants.


Backyard burning is of particular health concern because it produces significant quantities of dioxins. Dioxins and "dioxin like" compounds are a group of 30 highly toxic chlorinated organic chemicals. They are produced naturally in small quantities, but are primarily the result of human activity. They can be produced through industrial processes such as chlorinated chemical manufacturing and metal smelting. Currently, however, the largest quantified source of dioxin emissions is the uncontrolled burning of household trash (backyard burning). Studies have shown that only small amounts of chlorinated materials in waste are required to support dioxin formation when burning waste. This means that even when materials containing high levels of chlorine, such as PVC, are removed from household trash, burning the waste still creates dioxins because nearly all household waste contains trace amounts of chlorine.

Much of the dioxins created and released into the air through backyard burning settle on plants. These plants are, in turn, eaten by meat and dairy animals, which store the dioxins in their fatty tissue. People are exposed to dioxins primarily by eating meat, fish, and dairy products, especially those high in fat. Backyard burning occurs most commonly in rural farming areas where dioxin emissions can more easily be deposited on animal feed crops and grazing lands. These dioxins then accumulate in the fats of dairy cows, beef, poultry, and swine, making human consumption of these harmful chemicals difficult to avoid.

Dioxins are classified as persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic pollutants (PBTs). PBTs are highly toxic, long-lasting substances that can build up in the food chain to levels that are harmful to human and ecosystem health. Persistent means they remain in the environment for extended periods of time. Bioaccumulative means their concentration levels increase as they move up the food chain. As a consequence, animals at the top of the food chain (such as humans) tend to have the highest dioxin concentrations in their bodies.

Dioxins are potent toxicants with the potential to produce a broad spectrum of adverse effects in humans. Dioxins can alter the fundamental growth and development of cells in ways that have the potential to lead to many kinds of impacts. These include adverse effects upon reproduction and development, suppression of the immune system, disruption of hormonal systems, and cancer. For more detailed information on dioxin health effects, safety issues, and risk, visit EPA's Dioxin and Related Compounds Web site.

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Particle Pollution

Particle pollution, also referred to as particulate matter, or PM, refers to microscopic particles released by open burning. Particles that are small enough to get into the lungs (those less than or equal to 10 um in diameter) can cause numerous health problems. Particles can aggravate respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis, and have been associated with cardiac arrhythmia (heartbeat irregularities) and heart attacks. People with heart or lung disease, the elderly, and children are at highest risk from exposure to particles. For more information EPA's particulate matter site.

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Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are a group of chemicals commonly found in particulate matter (or smoke and soot) released from backyard burning. The are formed from the incomplete combustion of certain materials. Some PAHs are carcinogenic, or cancer-causing.

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Volatile Organic Compounds

People in the immediate vicinity of a burn barrel are also exposed to high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced by open burning. Many VOCs are harmful to humans. They also contribute to ground-level ozone pollution, also known as smog, which can worsen respiratory, heart, and other existing health problems. Inhaling certain VOCs can lead to eye, nose, and throat irritation; headache; loss of coordination; nausea; and damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system.

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Carbon Monoxide

Another major pollutant generated by backyard burning is carbon monoxide (CO). At low levels of exposure to CO, humans may experience a variety of neurological symptoms including headache, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. For more information, visit EPA's carbon monoxide site.

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Hexachlorobenzene, or HCB, is a highly persistent environmental toxin that degrades slowly in air and, consequently, undergoes long-range atmospheric transport. HCB bioaccumulates in fish, marine animals, birds, lichens, and animals that feed on fish or lichens. Based on studies conducted on animals, long-term low-level exposures may damage a developing fetus, cause cancer, lead to kidney and liver damage, and cause fatigue and skin irritation. HCB is considered a probable human carcinogen and is toxic by all routes of exposure.

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Backyard burning also produces ash residue, which can contain toxic metals such as mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic. These metals can be toxic when ingested. When a person ingests hazardous amounts of lead, for example, he or she may experience high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, kidney damage, and brain damage. Unaware of the potential danger, some people scatter the ash in their gardens or bury it on their property. Garden vegetables can absorb and accumulate these metals, which can make them dangerous to eat. Children playing in the yard or garden can incidentally ingest soil containing these metals. Also, rain can wash the ash into groundwater and surface water, contaminating drinking water and food.

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