Why backyard burning is not such a hot idea

by The United States Environmental Protection Agency

Backyard burning occurs when people burn household trash on their own property.

Typical household trash burned consists of items that would typically be sent to a landfill or recycled. This includes

Paper, cardboard, food scraps, plastics, yard trimmings, leaves.

Burning can occur in a burn barrel, usually a 55-gallon drum, a homemade burn box, wood stove, outdoor boiler, or open pit.

In the past, the trash burned by residents, especially those in rural areas, consisted mainly of paper and wood. The makeup of trash has changed within the past 50 years and now includes coated paper, plastics, and other materials manufactured by humans.

What are the health effects of pollutants emitted from backyard burning?

Backyard burning can emit pollutants such as hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), particle pollution, and volatile organic compounds (VOC). These pollutants can contribute to health problems that may affect homeowners, their families, their neighbors, and the community. While state, local, and Tribal regulations limit the amount of backyard burning, dangerous releases of HAPs can occur if a homeowner does not comply with these regulations. Burning trash produces many pollutants, including:


Dioxins are released when items containing even trace amounts of chlorine are burned. One burn barrel can produce as much or more than a full-scale municipal waste combustor burning 200 tons a day (EPA).

Dioxins are persistent, bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs). They remain in the environment for extended periods of time and increase in concentration as they move up the food chain.

Dioxins enter the food chain by settling out of the air into water and onto vegetation. Since most backyard burning occurs in rural areas, dioxins are consumed by cattle and other animals that are eaten as food.

Dioxins can cause immune system suppression, disruption of hormonal systems, and cancer.

Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter

Particle pollution is released during trash or leaf burning as small bits of ash.

Particle pollution can lodge deep in the lungs and cause respiratory problems, cardiac arrhythmia (heartbeat irregularities), and heart attacks

Particle pollution can also impact the young, the elderly, and people with existing conditions such as emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma.

Particle pollution can also contain other harmful pollutants such as heavy metals.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)

PAHs are found in materials that do not combust completely.

Some PAHs can cause cancer.


VOC is released during backyard burning of both leaves and trash.

The chemicals in VOC can form ground-level ozone which can cause breathing difficulties, especially with those who are young, elderly, or have existing respiratory problems such as asthma.

Formaldehyde is released when pressed wood products, paints, coatings, siding, urea-formaldehyde foam, and fiberglass insulation are burned.

Exposure to formaldehyde can result in watery eyes, a burning sensation in the eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty in breathing (i.e., coughing, chest tightness, wheezing), and skin rashes.

Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde may cause cancer.

Hexachlorobenzene (HCB)

HCB is produced during the burning of trash and is a highly persistent toxin that degrades slowly in the air. Therefore, it can travel long distances in the atmosphere.

HCB bioaccumulates in fish, marine animals, birds, lichens, and animals that feed on fish and lichens.

Based on animal studies, longterm, low-level exposures to HCB can damage a developing fetus, lead to kidney and liver damage, and cause fatigue and skin irritation.

HCB is a probable human carcinogen.

Hydrochloric acid

Hydrochloric acid is produced when products containing polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are burned.

Hydrochloric acid can cause dermatitis, skin burns, rhinitis, laryngitis, tracheitis, hoarseness, choking, bronchitis, pulmonary edema, couch, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dehydration, convulsions, chills, shock, lethargy, stupor, permanent visual damage, and circulatory collapse which may lead to death.

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is produced when leaves are burned and not completely combusted.

Carbon monoxide can react with sunlight to create ground-level ozone.

Carbon monoxide is absorbed into the bloodstream. It combines with red blood cells and 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 exposure than the general population.


Benzo(a)pyrene is emitted when leaves are burned.

Benzo(a)pyrene can cause cancer.

The ash left over from trash burning may also cause health hazards if buried or scattered in a yard or garden.

Heavy metals are often found in the inks of printed materials.

People can be exposed to heavy metals from ash because plants may take up these metals as they grow in a garden, or these heavy metals may contaminate ground or surface water.

Children are especially susceptible to heavy metals because they play in the dirt and put their unwashed hands in their mouths.

The ash may contain heavy metals such as:


Cadmium can cause lung damage and kidney disease.


Chronic oral exposure to arsenic can cause gastrointestinal problems, anemia, kidney and liver disease, and different types of cancers.


Exposure to mercury can result in nervous system and kidney damage as well as developmental damage.

The EPA’s Health Effects Notebook has more information on the health effects of mercury.


Chromium can impact the respiratory system and may cause some types of cancer.

Instead of burning food scraps, leaves, and other yard waste, develop a compost pile that can turn yard waste into mulch.

Learn more about composting.

Consider chipping brush to make mulch or decorative landscape material.

Dispose of allowable waste materials at a licensed landfill or recycling center.

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