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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Backyard Burning

Air Date: Week of

A new study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that just a few people burning their own garbage in the backyard can release as much dioxin into the atmosphere as a municipal trash incinerator serving 120,000 households. Janet Raloff of Science News talks to host Steve Curwood about this practice.


CURWOOD: Setting just about anything on fire releases an array of compounds into the air. Concern about dioxins, carcinogens released when things like plastic bags and batteries are burned, has led to tightened emission standards for municipal garbage incinerators. But these regulations don't apply to the many people who get rid of household waste by burning it themselves. A new study by the Environmental Protection Agency found these back yard trash burners are spewing huge quantities of dioxin into the air. Janet Raloff, senior editor at Science News and our science correspondent, has been following this story. Hi, Janet.

RALOFF: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: So tell me, is this new study a big deal? How many people are really doing this?

RALOFF: No one knows how many people are really doing this, although the EPA wants to. But their estimate is that if a lot of people in rural areas are doing it, it could contribute up to a quarter of the dioxin in the air in the United States. And then, certainly globally, most people get rid of their trash by burning, so they're going to be spewing it elsewhere as well.

CURWOOD: Now, just a few people burning in their back yard can cause a problem?

RALOFF: Well, the reason is because it only takes a few people to equal the same dioxin emissions of an incinerator that serves a community of maybe 50,000 to 100,000 people. I mean, really very few people, like three to 30.

CURWOOD: What are some of the common products that contain the ingredients for dioxins?

RALOFF: Well, what you want are things that are rich in chlorine, and many plastics are, particularly the polyvinyl chloride that's often not recycled along with your other plastics. And you can find this particular type of plastic in a whole range of household goods from placemats and children's raincoats to the legs on Barbie dolls, or electrical wiring. Even diaper bags.

CURWOOD: Now, is there any way to cut down on the pollution these products release in back yard fires? I mean, it probably is pretty hard to call for a total ban on fires themselves, right?

RALOFF: Well, one way would be to keep some of these things out of the wastestream . Things that are rich in chlorine, like these plastics and a number of other goods in the trash. But also certain things that can help push the reaction up, and those are like metals such as copper. And you can find those in a whole range of electronic circuitry, which you may be throwing out with small toys, or you could find it in batteries, which is another reason not to throw batteries out in the trash.

CURWOOD: Now, what if people recycle their trash? Now, that would be an improvement, right? I mean, at least in absolute terms, they'd be burning smaller quantities of stuff.

RALOFF: You'd think so, wouldn't you? It turns out that recyclers actually produce more dioxin than the non-recycling family of four. And we're not talking a little bit more. They're actually producing 44 times more per pound.

CURWOOD: Huh? How does that happen?

RALOFF: Well, it turns out that when they recycle, they take out a lot of the things that would otherwise dilute the recipe for making dioxin. And so you have more of the stuff left behind that's a very good producer of it. And you end up with lots of dioxin.

CURWOOD: So the dioxins can't form if the recipe's not available then.

RALOFF: Well, they may form but they won't form nearly as well.

CURWOOD: Now, what if these people are burning in their back yards way out in the countryside? You know, not near the city, not where you can expect the neighbors to breathe the stuff. Does it still affect us?

RALOFF: Well, nobody quite knows, but certainly that's where a lot of our food comes from. That's where we have the dairy cows. That's where we have our crops growing. And this stuff will rain down and into the food. And they've shown that it actually comes through into produce that we get in the market. It comes into the milk of dairy cows. It's not necessarily benign by having it happen out in rural areas.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks for bringing us up to date on this, I guess I could call it a burning issue, Janet.

RALOFF: (Laughs) Indeed.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Sorry about that one. Janet Raloff is senior editor at Science News and Living on Earth's science correspondent. When we return, in Seattle, saving Hamm Creek means saving salmon, and one man has done both, by turning a sewer back into the stream it was meant to be. Keep listening to Living on Earth.



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