September 23, 2005 | By: Terri McLean

Burning trash in a backyard burn barrel may be a common method of getting rid of garbage, but it’s also a hazardous one – more than previously thought.

Amanda Abnee, Extension associate for environmental and natural resource issues at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, said today’s garbage contains more plastics and other synthetic materials, which release more harmful chemicals when burned.

“Open burning can have negative impacts on our environment and our health,” said Abnee, who is also a member of the Environmental and Natural Resource Issues Task Force Air Quality Focus Group that has begun a push to educate the public about open burning. “Many health issues have been linked to open burning, including asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and nervous system disorders.” 

The problem, Abnee said, is that open burning creates low-temperature fires that burn without much oxygen. This creates dense smoke, which may contain hazardous pollutants such as particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, lead, mercury, volatile organic compounds and corrosives.

“Ashes containing these same compounds can settle on lakes and rivers or be washed into streams during heavy rains,” she said. “These pollutants can have immediate and long-term health effects.”

One group of contaminants that can be especially dangerous is known as dioxins. They are dangerous even at low levels and have been linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive disorders, and birth defects.

“Burn barrels do not have the same strict controls as municipal incinerators, so barrel burning releases a huge amount of dioxins into the environment,” Abnee said.

Those dioxins eventually settle onto feed crops and in water supplies, which are then eaten by meat and dairy animals and absorbed by fish, she explained. They accumulate in animals and fish and then in humans when they consume meat, dairy and fish products.

Open burning is regulated by the Kentucky Division for Air Quality. There are open burning activities that are allowed, including campfires, bonfires, warming fires at construction sites and fire training. But even approved materials may not be burned at certain times, including between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. during fire season, which runs Oct. 1 through Dec. 15 and Feb. 1 through April 30. (The Kentucky Division for Air Quality has a complete list of approved and nonapproved materials and activities.)

Open burning of approved materials should be done in a “common sense manner,” Abnee said. It is the cause of nearly half of Kentucky’s wildfires each year. 

“As we move into the fall fire season, it is really important to remember the basic guidelines,” she said. “These include locating fires away from homes and businesses and at least 150 feet from the nearest forested area. And do not locate fires near streams, sinkholes or near utility lines because of the potential for even more environmental problems.”

Abnee and her partners in the Air Quality Focus Group want to create awareness about the hazards of open burning, but at the same time they want to remind people that there are alternatives.

“Many people, especially those in rural areas where there is no trash pickup, think they have no other choice but to burn their garbage,” she said. “But they do have a choice, and that choice begins when they go shopping and buy items with less packaging and fewer plastic containers.”

The group also encourages people to recycle.

“There are many resources available to help Kentuckians not only generate less waste but also to dispose of their waste in a more environmentally friendly manner,” she said.

The Division for Air Quality has regional offices in Ashland, Bowling Green, Florence, Frankfort, Hazard, London, Owensboro and Paducah. To find out about open burning regulations, contact the main office at (502) 573-3382. County Extension offices are also able to provide information on the topic of open burning.


Writer: Terri McLean 859-257-4736, ext. 276

Contact: Amanda Abnee, 859-257-6094