Burning domestic waste can rival emissions from municipal waste incinerators

A study claims that a family of four burning typical domestic waste in their backyard can put as much dioxin and furan into the air as a well-controlled municipal waste incinerator serving tens of thousands of households.

“Open burning of household waste in barrels is potentially one of the largest sources of airborne dioxin and furan emissions in the United States, particularly as EPA standards force major reductions in emissions from municipal and medical waste incinerators,” says Paul Lemieux, a researcher at the US EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Research Triangle Park, NC and one of the study’s co-authors.

Exposure to certain dioxins has been shown to cause adverse effects in laboratory animals, in particular cancer, as well as immune dysfunction, hormonal changes and developmental abnormalities.

The study, which will be published in Environmental Science & Technology, describes how emission measurements from burning of ‘typical’ household waste in 208 litre drums were conducted at the EPA’s Open Burning Test Facility in North Carolina. The waste included newspapers, books, magazines, junk mail, cardboard, milk cartons, food waste, various types of plastic, and assorted cans, bottles and jars. No paint, grease, oils, tires or other household hazardous wastes were included.

The barrel burn results were compared with emission data from a “well-controlled incinerator performing better than the dioxin requirements set by recent EPA standards,” according to Lemieux. The study found that under test conditions, more polychlorinated compounds were emitted from barrel burning than municipal incinerators because of lower incineration temperatures and poor combustion conditions.

Burning domestic waste in open barrels is banned in most areas of the US. The regions of the country where burning trash is permitted are mostly confined to rural areas.

“This research certainly shows the dangers of open burning of garbage,” a spokesperson for the Clean Air Trust told edie. “We have received complaints about this issue from citizens via our website. However, the research may not trigger federal legislation – it will probably be a short working year for Congress because of the elections. It will likely fuel calls for state and local governments to take a closer took at the need for new restrictions on open burning.”

The EPA has launched follow-up studies at its North Carolina test facility to assess the magnitude of backyard waste burning as a significant dioxin source. This could finally resolve a discrepancy between estimates of dioxin emissions and actual deposition measurements identified by a 1994 EPA assessment.

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