Many state and local ordinances let residents use their property to burn dry leaves and brush. Because of mild autumn weather, hundreds of thousands of Americans are legally burning this fall. And why not? Leaf burning is safe enough for the community to allow it, and must be environmentally sound. Plus, if you burn your yard waste, a garbage truck won’t dump it into landfills. However, there is new advice from experts that says people should avoid burning leaves and plant clippings whenever possible – not only for the planet, but out of serious concern for your health. The government is paying attention.
How Burning Leaves Harms Your Health
After averaging over 600 complaint calls each year during “open-burning” season, McHenry County, Illinois Department of Health met with area first responders, who, it turned out, were on the receiving end of constant gripes, too. The department reviewed portions of hospital records and determined the leaf burning was releasing cancer-causing particulates into the air, and the smoke was causing sickness in patients with asthma, emphysema and cardiovascular conditions. The county opted to pay for increased garbage disposal that now permits yard waste, and banned burning.
The Air After Leaf Burning is Worse Than a Factory Smokestack
The EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) conducted several studies on the impact leaf burning has on humans, animals, and the planet. In many areas of the country, burning leaves and brush creates more air pollution than output from vehicles, lawn and garden equipment, and factories! Some air samples taken from leaf burning smoke contained concentrations of air pollutants so high that it does not meet federal health standards.
In healthy adults, that smoke irritates the eyes, nose, and throat. But in people with lung disease, heart disease, COPD or asthma, as well as small children and the elderly, it can go beyond irritation. They can develop coughing, wheezing, chest pain and shortness of breath. Leaf burning smoke contains tiny charred leaf particles which make their way deep into the lungs. Because it can take time for this process, symptoms can be delayed for up to 3-4 days after being exposed.
Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources analyzed air quality before, during, and after residents burned yard waste. They found hazardous chemicals like carbon monoxide and Benzo(a)pyrene. Benzo(a)pyrene is a toxin generated when something is not burned at a high enough temperature for complete combustion to occur. It causes cancer in animals and is believed to contribute to lung cancer in cigarette smokers, workers exposed to coal tar, and people who come into contact with a lot of leaf smoke.
You have probably heard of carbon monoxide before. It seeps into blood and binds with the hemoglobin, limiting the amount of oxygen that can be transported in the bloodstream and to the lungs. Young children have immature lungs which can be harmed quicker by exposure to carbon monoxide, as can regular smokers, people with chronic heart or lung diseases, and the elderly.
Public Safety Hazards of Leaf Burning Besides Health
Leaf burning can soil buildings and other property (think of your neighbors), as well as cause people to call 911 for local fire and police response, thinking there is a fire. Especially at night, burning leaves and other yard waste can reduce visibility and cause a nuisance from the thick smoke.
Safe Alternatives to Burning Leaves
- Start a compost pile. To prevent an out-of-control super pile, shred your leaves before composting. This cuts the volume significantly. Do the same with plant clippings.
- Become an amateur woodworker and expert gardener. Take the branches (also called brush), run them through a woodchipper, clean the wood and make mulch or even decorative chips. Rumor has it that wood mulch degrades the fertility of the soil, making it less inhabitable to growing. In the short term, this has been proven, but in the long term, numerous broad studies have shown wood mulch significantly improves soil.
- Donna Bergman, a former executive at the EPA and now Manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, encourages people to mulch with their lawn mowers and spread on garden beds and the bottoms of shrubs. “This gives the critters and the birds places to find cover, scratch around and find food – and you’ll be enriching the soil and saving landfill space.”
- Bag it and send it to the landfill. Check with your municipality to see if collection services are available. There may also be a drop-off center.
Download the free EPA publication, EPA Residential Leaf Burning–An Unhealthy Solution.