Dangers of Burning

Dangerous Health Effects of Burning of Plastics and Waste

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Fact Sheet

Dioxin emissions from plastic burning

The most dangerous emissions can be caused by burning plastics containing organochlor-based substances like PVC. When such plastics are burned, harmful quantities of dioxins, a group of highly toxic chemicals are emitted. Dioxins are the most toxic to the human organisms. They are carcinogenic and a hormone disruptor and persistent, and they accumulate in our body-fat and thus mothers give it directly to their babies via the placenta. Dioxins also settle on crops and in our waterways where they eventually wind up in our food, accumulate in our bodies and are passed on to our children.

Burning of plastics and waste

Surveys show that home burning of waste is widespread across rural areas all-over the world. Waste is either burned outside in the yard or garden, or inside in ovens. Waste that is burned can include paper, cardboard, food scraps and plastics, ? essentially any materials that would otherwise be recycled or picked up by a waste collection company. Air emissions from home burning are released directly into the house or the atmosphere without being treated or filtered.

How does home plastic waste burning affect people?s health?

Most people who burn their plastic domestic waste do not realize how harmful this practice is to their health and to the environment. Current research indicates that backyard-burning of waste is far more harmful to our health than previously thought. It can increase the risk of heart disease, aggravate
respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema, and cause rashes, nausea, or headaches, damages in the nervous system, kidney or liver, in the reproductive and development system. The burning of polystyrene polymers – such as foam cups, meat trays, egg containers, yogurt and deli containers – releases styrene. Styrene gas can readily be absorbed through the skin and lungs.
At high levels styrene vapor can damage the eyes and mucous membranes. Long term exposure to styrene can affect the central nervous system, causing headaches, fatigue, weakness, and depression. Not only these people who are burning the trash are exposed to these pollutants,
but also their neighbours, children and families.

How burning of plastics and other waste harms the environment?

Pollutants released from burning plastic waste in a burn barrel are transported through the air either short or long distances, and are then deposited onto land or into bodies of water. A few of these pollutants such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and furans persist for long periods of time in the environment and have a tendency to bio-accumulate which means they
build up in predators at the top of the food web. Bioaccumulation of pollutants usually occurs indirectly through contaminated water and food rather than breathing the contaminated air directly. In wildlife, the range of effects associated with these pollutants includes cancer, deformed offspring, reproductive failure, immune diseases and subtle neurobehavioral effects. Humans can be exposed
indirectly just like wildlife, especially through consumption of contaminated fish, meat and diary products.

Leaf Burning

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An Unhealthy Solution to Leaf Disposal
?Q: Why should I be concerned about leaf burning?
A: leaf burning leads to air pollution, health problems, and fire hazards.

Q: What types of air pollutants are emitted from burning leaf piles?
A: The open burning of leaves produces particulate matter and hydrocarbons, which contain a number of toxic, irritant, and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds. Leaf smoke also contains carbon monoxide.

Q: What is particulate matter and why is it a health concern?
A: The visible smoke from leaf burning is composed of tiny particles that contain a number of pollutants. If inhaled, these microscopic particles can reach the deepest regions of the lung and remain there for months or even years. Breathing particulate matter can increase the chances of respiratory infection, reduce the volume of air inhaled and impair the lungs’ ability to use that air. Particulate matter can also trigger asthma attacks in some people.

Q: What are hydrocarbons and why are they harmful?
A: Hydrocarbons are chemicals that can exist as both gases and solid particles. Because leaves are often moist and burn without proper air circulation, they often burn poorly, producing high levels of hydrocarbons. Some of these hydrocarbons, such as aldehydes and ketones, cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. A substantial portion of the hydrocarbons in leaf smoke consists of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are known carcinogens.

Q: What is carbon monoxide and what are its health effects?
A: Carbon monoxide is an invisible gas that results from incomplete combustion, and burning leaf piles are ideal for creating carbon monoxide emissions. Carbon monoxide is absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs and combines with red blood cells. This reduces the amount of oxygen the red blood cells can absorb and supply to body tissues. Unborn children, newborn infants, smokers, the elderly, and persons with heart and chronic lung disease are more susceptible to carbon monoxide than the general population.

Hydrocarbons Particulate Matter Carbon Monoxide


Q: Are there any other reasons people should not burn leaves?
A: Yes, the total health, financial, and environmental costs of leaf burning can be quite high. These costs include: (1) higher incidences of health problems and increased health care costs; (2) higher incidences of home and forest fires and associated property loss and need for increased fire protection; and (3) the clean-up costs associated with soiling of personal property.

Q: Is there a better alternative for homeowners to dispose of their leaves?
A: Yes! Composting is a safe and environmentally sound method of managing leaves and other yard trimmings. Proper composting does not cause health or fire hazards and, in fact, can be beneficial to gardens and lawns. Composting is a simple process that involves placing yard trimmings and other organic materials in a pile or bin, maintaining adequate moisture, and turning the pile periodically to mix in air. Microorganisms gradually break down the yard trimmings into a humus-like product called compost. Composting can be practical at home or at community operated compost sites.