Backyard Burning: Why It’s Illegal

Letters / Nov. 30, 2000 12:00am EST

Backyard Burning: Why It’s Illegal

Many householders in Vermont regularly burn their household trash in backyard burn barrels. It seems like a simple way to dispose of trash. In fact, it is so common that you might even think it is legal.

Yes, it has been illegal for over a decade to burn anything but leaves, twigs, and untreated wood. No one likes the increased costs of trash disposal, but consider the greater costs associated with backyard burning, besides the fact you can be fined.

It is estimated that some 18,000 households illegally burn 28 million pounds of trash annually in Vermont. While burning household trash has never been a healthy thing to do, refuse until only a few decades ago contained mostly wood, paper and glass. Manufacturers now use a variety of synthetics in their packaging that when burned release a toxic stew of carcinogens into our air and soil.

Consider something as common and seemingly benign as the packaging used for frozen vegetables and pizzas you buy in the supermarket (bleached paper products), the kind of light weight cardboard with a bright white interior. Burning this type of packaging that releases halogenated hydrocarbons, associated with blood abnormalities, low white cell count and leukemia.

Paper products with a slick color finish, such as magazines and wrapping paper release heavy metals when burned, attaching to soot particles which can be breathed into your lungs. The absorption of heavy metals by humans has been linked to birth defects, interference with blood cell production and liver and kidney deterioration.

The worst are PVC plastics, which when burned produce dioxins and chlorinated furans, two of the most toxic, cancer-causing substances known.

I have often seen small children playing in their backyard while trash is being burned. Children have developing immune systems and are about six times more sensitive to toxins.

The official at the dump told me that an average family of four, who recycles, accumulates about one and a half bags of household trash per week, less than $3.50. per week to dispose of at the local dump. Are we willing to risk our children and our neighbors health to save a few dollars on trash disposal?

If you would like to save money on trash disposal, consider purchasing food without packaging from the bulk section of the Food Coop, and save money on the initial purchase, too. Start recycling, it’s free at the dump. I would also rather see subsidies to households that cannot afford the dump fees, than to see the trash burned. Cities deal with trash disposal as a municipal problem, levying higher taxes to remove it.

Many Vermont communities have rejected municipal incinerators, because some modern materials in our trash continue to pose problems even when burned highly efficiently. According to the studies done by the EPA, it would only take two to three households burning about 3.3 pounds of trash on any given day to match the daily dioxin output of a well run municipal incinerator serving the needs of up to 120,000 households.

This is not only a problem in Vermont, but in the rest of rural America, as well. Another study done by the EPA estimates that barrel burning may release as much dioxin as did all municipal incinerators in 1995, before the EPA tightened incinerator laws. This gives you an idea of how big the problem is.

While many of us treasure "the old ways" and a simple lifestyle, perhaps it is time to reconsider this tradition for the sake of our neighbors, our children and ourselves. Many of us learn too late that the most precious thing we possess is our health.

I urge you to please do away with the backyard burn barrels.

Diana Salyer


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