Clean & Green – Backyard Burning: The Hidden Hazards

10-2-2015 2-22-32 PMThe weather is cooling down which brings out the fire pits and bonfires. Fall is a great time to sit around a fire roasting marshmallows and making s’mores. A roaring fire can be a place for friends to gather, it can be warm and romantic, or it can be a way to burn household trash (or so some people think).

What’s wrong with burning my trash?

Burned trash does not disappear. Many people don’t realize how dangerous burning household trash is to their health, the health of others and the health of our environment. When backyard burning takes place, pollutants are carried through the air for short and long distances, falling upon land, crops, or into bodies of water.

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Burning paper and cardboard seems harmless, but there are many chemicals added to these materials in the process of making them that are released into the air when burned. Some pollutants such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and furans stay in the environment for a long time.

Contaminated water and food ingested by wildlife can cause cancer, deformed offspring, reproductive failure, immune diseases, and more. Humans can also be exposed to these pollutants indirectly just like wildlife, especially through eating and/or drinking contaminated fish, meat, and dairy products.

Are there regulations?

According to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) regulations under section 335-3-3-.01 Open Burning, “Only vegetation and untreated wood may be burned. It is unauthorized to open burn heavy oils, asphalt products, plastics, vinyl materials, insulation, paper, cardboard, natural or synthetic rubber, salvage or scrap materials, chemicals, garbage, treated or painted wood, or any trash.”

Guidelines for burning vegetation and untreated wood must be under certain conditions. The following is a partial list of those conditions:
• burning must take place on the property on which the combustible fuel originates;
• burning must be controlled so there is no traffic hazard created on any public road, street, or highway;
• Initial burning may be commenced between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. No combustible material is to be added to the fire between 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. the following day.
• The fire must be attended at all times.

Backyard burning should be limited to leaves, fallen or trimmed trees, and other vegetation. All other trash should be recycled or placed in garbage cans for pickup or taken to the transfer station. Today’s landfills are heavily regulated to ensure that contaminants are not released into the environment.

Be aware of burn bans

When temperatures are high and conditions are dry, burn bans may be put into effect to prevent wild fires. Before lighting an outdoor fire, be sure you know if a burn ban has been issued for the county in which you live. Under a burn ban, no open burning of any kind is permitted.

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What can I do?

If you practice open burning of any kind, it would be wise to familiarize yourself with all of the regulations pertaining to this subject since fines can be levied for failure to comply. To see the full version of these ADEM regulations, visit There are additional regulations which apply if you reside within the City of Athens. For information, visit

If you suspect that something is being burned other than natural brush and vegetation, contact the ADEM field office in Decatur, Alabama at 256-353-1713 or go to and click the “Complaints” icon.

By: Lynne Hart

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