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Burning Garbage
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Why do rural folks burn their garbage?

A month ago, while visiting friends in the country, there was a pervasive smell of burning garbage – coming from a house about half a kilometre upwind. In many rural areas and small towns, "burn barrels" are a common, traditional practice. In some areas they help reduce garbage pickup fees.

When my friend – a young MD in otherwise good health – had an asthma attack, I offered to write up a flyer and distribute it to the neighbours. We did a little research on the web and whipped up the following flyer. In it, we spelled out the problem and the alternatives, dealt with likely misperceptions & objections – and blamed nobody. I distributed it to almost a hundred mailboxes.

This weekend my friend called and reported that she and her husband had noticed only one burning during the month, a dramatic decrease from the usual. A happy ending – and an example of how simple, direct communication can have a positive effect!

Burning = Cancer!

Burning plastic, rubber or other man-made materials creates dioxin and other dangerous toxics in the air, soil & groundwater. This endangers you, your children, your neighbours, your pets, birds and fish – with tumours, cancer, learning disorders, infertility, immune system problems, asthma, and other diseases. Children, teenagers & pregnant women are at the highest risk. The resulting ash is also toxic and can easily get into the ground and your well water.

But we’ve always done it that way!

Dioxin and other chemicals are totally invisible, and their health effects are not immediate. It is easy to be unaware of the problems. But once you are aware, it doesn’t make sense to continue.

It may be hard to accept that the simple act of burning your garbage endangers you and your family. But the longer you continue, the more poisons accumulate in your body.

What is safe to burn?

Ideally, you shouldn’t burn anything, other than for cooking food or heating your house. Burning leaves, plant clippings, paper, cardboard, and clean, unpainted, untreated wood is less hazardous than plastics – but is still not a healthy practice.

What’s the alternative?

F Dispose of man-made materials at the dump
F Compost leaves & garden waste
F Re-use, reduce & recycle

Reduce: buy in bulk or larger quantities; demand less packaging on the products you buy.
Reuse: find someone else who can use it, have a yard sale, or donate it to a resale organization.
Recycle: paper, cardboard, metal and acceptable plastics.
Compost: use a composter - or just let your garden waste decompose in a heap in a corner of your yard.

(A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study showed that garbage burned in a barrel or heap emits twice as much furans, 20 times more dioxin and 40 times more particulates than professional incineration with air pollution controls. Use of burn barrels results in incomplete combustion, and emits acid vapours, carcinogenic tars, and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and chromium, as well as unhealthful levels of carbon monoxide).

Peter Blanchard

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Other resources on burning garbage: search for "burning garbage" (quotes included)

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