Smoke Gets in My Eyes--and Lungs

May 19, 2002

By Michael Jessen

Although their surnames belie the fact, I swear most of my neighbours are related to Ernie Jenkins. You remember Ernie, he's the character in Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales who "likes fires."

Whether burning dried grass, leaves, or tree and shrub prunings, my neighbours have been demonstrating they like fires with alarming frequency this spring. The smoke is bad enough, occurring as it often does on those bright, sunny spring days when fume-free air is such a bonus. But it's the smell that really tells me something unhealthful is happening in my neighbour's backyards.

Now the neighbours stand upwind of their fires so they probably don't get too many whiffs of the smouldering smoke. But if it blows into your yard, or you walk or drive through the breath-snatching reeky air, you know you want to get away from it as quickly as possible.

And for good reason -- prolonged exposure to some backyard burning smoke can kill you! If your neighbour happens to be burning garbage laced with plastic, pressure treated wood, plywood, particle board, rubber, asphalt shingles, paint, or other chemicals, this fire is the equivalent of a toxic stew.

Let's talk about yard waste fires first. A number of years ago I heard a talk by Dr. Jim McTaggart-Cowan, then-director of the Air Resources Branch of the BC Ministry of Environment and an expert in indoor and outdoor air quality. His studies of backyard burning indicated that even small yard waste fires emitted dioxins, furans, and a host of other chemicals. Quite simply, that's why the fires smell so bad!

Now if you're a healthy individual, these small exposures may not harm you too much, although there will likely be a cumulative effect from successive exposures. But if you are a child, an elderly person, an asthmatic, or someone suffering lung or heart difficulties, repeated exposure to such smoke can cause significant health problems. This is because the visible smoke from such fires is made up almost entirely of tiny particles that can reach deep into lung tissue and cause symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, chest pain and shortness of breath. These symptoms might not occur until several days after exposure to large amounts of smoke. Fine particulates also tend to pick up other hazardous pollutants, giving them a free ride into the lungs.

Besides being an irritant, yard waste smoke contains many hazardous chemicals, including carbon monoxide and benzo(a)pyrene. Carbon monoxide binds with hemoglobin in the bloodstream and thus reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood and lungs. Benzo(a)pyrene is known to cause cancer in animals and is believed to be a major factor in lung cancer caused by cigarette smoke. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies, sometimes concentrations of air pollutants resulting from yard waste burning can be so high that the air does not meet federal health standards. In fact, in some areas burning of leaves and brush sometimes causes much higher levels of air pollution than all other forms of air pollution combined (such as factories, vehicles, and lawn and garden equipment). Yard waste burning can also reduce visibility, create safety hazards, cause a nuisance, soil buildings and other property, and create additional demands on local police and fire protection.

A 1995 BC Environment study (by Dr. Sverre Vedal of the University of BC's Department of medicine) estimates that each year in our province fine particulate pollution causes 82 deaths, 146 hospitalizations and 354 emergency room visits -- not to mention many more cases of milder respiratory symptoms, and time lost from work and school. Contrary to prevailing opinion, Dr. Vedal's study found the particulate problem was more pronounced in rural areas of the province than in urban areas. Meanwhile, new research in the U.S. links fine particulates with tens of thousands of deaths annually in that country.

Public health experts estimate that air pollution is responsible for 16,000 premature deaths in this country each year; at this rate, forty Canadians die from air pollution-related causes each and every day. Medical studies prove diabetics are more susceptible to the health effects of airborne pollutants. A study released a year ago showed hospitals admitted more patients on days when air pollution is bad. Joel Schwartz of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston correlated blood data for more than 5,000 men and women with measurements of air pollution on the day their blood had been drawn. His findings revealed that as airborne concentrations of fine dust particles climb, so do three blood factors that increase an individual's heart attack risk. One child in five in Canada has asthma and air pollutants adversely affect the health of more than 4 billion people worldwide. People in developing countries who cook with wood and coal over open fires suffer continuous exposure to smoke, which is estimated to cause the death of 4 million children each year. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a web page on the health and environmental effects of opening burning at

Burning garbage in a backyard barrel is even more of a health hazard. Burn barrels operate at relatively low temperatures, typically at 200 to 260 degrees Centigrade (C) and have poor combustion efficiency (municipal incinerators run in the 6500 to 1100 C range). As a result, many pollutants are generated and emitted directly into the air. Backyard trash and leaf burning often releases high levels of toxic compounds, some of which are carcinogenic or cancer causing. The web site says that by 2004, the U.S. EPA anticipates backyard burning of household waste to replace incineration as the single largest quantified source of dioxin, accounting for 57% of emissions. An EPA study released in January 2000 found the backyard burning of trash from a family of four released more dioxins than a municipal incinerator burning waste. A news report on the study published in Environmental Science and Technology can be found at “Smoke from burning garbage often contains acid gases, heavy metal vapours, carbon monoxide and other sorts of nasty toxins,” emphasizes Jerry Waters, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources air management engineer.

Health Canada's comments on dioxins found at contain this quote: The biggest source of dioxins and furans in Canada is the large-scale burning of municipal and medical waste. Other major sources include:

 The production of iron and steel  The backyard burning of household waste, especially plastics  Wood burning, especially if the wood has been chemically treated  Fuel burning, including diesel fuel and fuel for agricultural purposes and home-heating  Electrical power generation.

All of this information begs the question, why do we continue to allow backyard burning of any kind at all? Kamloops decided to take action in 1992. Backyard burning was banned on all properties less than 4,000 square metres (1 acre) in size. On properties 4,000 m2 and larger, burning can take place only when the "venting index" reaches a level sufficient to overcome the valley inversion. BC Environment, Environment Canada and local media work in partnership with the City of Kamloops to communicate this message, and therefore in enhancing the community's air quality.

Backyard burning has been banned in several U.S. states. It has been illegal in Minnesota since 1969. Other states have been slower to catch up. In 2001, the 120th Maine Legislature enacted a law (Public Law, Chapter 277) that bans the outdoor burning of trash. This means that as of September 21, 2001, the burning of trash in campfires, outdoor fireplaces and any type of open or closed container, such as burn barrels or unlicensed incinerator, is against the law. This ban also applies to the burning of construction and demolition debris containing plastics (vinyl), rubber, styrofoam, metal, food wastes and chemicals. For more information on the backyard burning of trash ban in Maine, see Bans are also in place in New Hampshire (see, Wisconsin, and Vermont. Many other jurisdictions have strict regulations such as Scotts Valley, California (, the District of Sechelt (, San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District (, and Maple Ridge ( ).

Some regional districts in BC also have burning bans including Central Okanagan Regional District and North Okanagan Regional District. Four municipalities in the Capital Regional District have bans, while seven others have partial bans. All municipalities in the Fraser Valley Regional District have bans. Communities such as Penticton, Powell River, Prince Rupert, Brittania, Squamish, Lytton, Merritt, Kamloops, Ashcroft, and Sechelt have total or partial bans.

Locally, Nelson allows yard waste burning only during the months of April and October. In Rossland ( permits are required for backyard burning between May 1 and October 1. But the Rossland web site (check out the fire categories section) also points to one of the main problems regarding burning in our province. Every year the Ministry of Forests place ads in the paper about open burning because all opening burning is governed by this ministry's burning regulations. These ads even indicate that the burning of recyclable materials like cardboard and paper is acceptable! But it is the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection (MWLAP) that has jurisdiction over smoke control. This leads one to question who is in charge of burning in BC? The provincial government cannot regulate most backyard burning since it falls under municipal jurisdiction. Many municipal bylaws dealing with backyard burning are more concerned with fire protection instead of air quality. To make it easier for municipalities to pass "anti-smoke" laws, the MWLAP created a model backyard burning bylaw in 1997 (accessible at that can be used to draft a bylaw that suits the municipality's preference -- to limit or prohibit backyard burning.

Instead of burning, there are alternatives:

 Compost leaves and plant clippings. You can reduce the volume of leaves significantly by shredding them before composting.  Chip brush and clean wood to make mulch or decorative chips.  Use municipal collection services if available, or ask your local municipality to offer such a service or a drop-off center. If you have to, look in the yellow pages and hire a local garden or property maintenance business to take your material away.  Don't burn garbage of any type. Dispose of it properly at local landfills, transfer stations, or product stewardship return depots.  If you feel strongly enough about the health effects of backyard burning, lobby your local municipal government to implement a ban.

In British Columbia, municipal elections will be held this November. This is a perfect time to lobby for backyard burning bans. We're making good progress improving our indoor air environments with strict smoking regulations, now it is time to take the same type of action for the outdoor air environment. Neighbourhood backyard fires aren't just a nuisance, they are a serious health hazard. Remember, breathing is the only thing we all have to do. This requires clean air.

RESOURCES - The excellent, informative pamphlet "Backyard burning: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes …. And Lungs" should be available at local MWLAP offices or can be downloaded from The Choked Communities web site of Clean Air BC is at, but many of its links are out of date. You can check out the new publication " a citizen's action guide" authored by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and published by the Sierra Legal Defense Fund at Backyard burning is a recipe for dioxin and the web site has a number of references and sources on the subject including: Lemieux, P.M. 2000. Evaluation of emissions from the open burning of household waste in barrels, available at

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based consultant who can help your business or community profit from environmental leadership. He can be reached at

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