Woodsmoke 101: burning garbage

Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a series the Citizen will be publishing in partnership with the provincial Ministry of the Environment and the Cowichan Valley Regional District about the importance of clean air the effects of pollution.

Think burning your garbage is a good idea? Think again.

It is not that far in the past that many of us had burn barrels in the backyard to take care of everyday household garbage – wood and food scraps, paper, cardboard, milk cartons and food packaging. It’s no longer permitted in most cities and towns, but some rural areas still use burn barrels, and sometimes people slip a little garbage onto the leaf pile – better

than sending it to the landfill, right? Wrong.

A wide range of pollutants are produced by burning garbage – the most harmful are dioxins. TCDD (2,3,7-8-tetrachlorodibenzop-dioxin) is one of the most toxic. It stays in the environment a long time and can travel a long way before settling to the ground, where it ends up in the tissue of living organisms and concentrates up the food chain.

In 2007-2009, small amounts of TCDD were detected in the blood serum of 83 per cent of the people from across the country tested in the Canadian Health Measures Survey – that’s 3,800 out of 4,580 tested.

Long-term exposure to TCDD causes cancer in people and animals, impairs immune, hormone and reproductive systems, and impacts nervous system development. These are serious health effects, and exposure should be minimized as much as possible. This is why emissions of TCDD from industry, municipal waste incinerators and pulp mills are heavily regulated in Canada and around the world.

The good news is that TCDD levels in the environment and in people have been decreasing steadily since the 1970s and 1980s, when emission control devices for large sources were becoming widely used.

The bad news is that open burning of garbage in backyards now produces more dioxins than all industrial activities combined in Canada, according to Environment Canada.

Some TCDD is produced by burning leaves and wood, but much more is produced when anything containing even trace amounts of chlorine-based chemicals is burned, like plastics, paper and food packaging.

Controlled tests have measured almost 1,800 times as much dioxin from burning typical household garbage as from natural wood.

A more startling fact may be that in some cases, burning 10 kg of domestic garbage in the backyard can produce as much dioxin as a Municipal Waste Combustor burning 182,000 kg of similar garbage. TCDD isn’t the only pollutant of concern – burning garbage also produces harmful polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dibenzofurans, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

CVRD bylaws and provincial regulations prohibit the burning of household or construction waste, tires, plastics, drywall, paint, tar paper, treated lumber, railway ties, rubber, asphalt, fuel or lubricant containers, and other hazardous waste.

The best way to deal with your household garbage is to reduce the amount you produce, compost or recycle what you can, and send the rest to the landfill where it can be handled responsibly.

Visit the Cowichan Recyclopedia website for more information on how to reduce your garbage and recycle effectively (www.zerowastecowichan. ca/recyclopedia).

Eleanor Setton is a research scientist at the University of Victoria. Contributions were also made by the Cowichan Valley Regional District and the B.C. Ministry of Environment.

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