C.A.N. DO Fact Sheet

The Lung Association

Open Burning

Open burning was once a common sight. We cleared land by burning out the stumps, burned our leaves in the fall, and burned debris from yard or construction work. Open burning was the most convenient method of disposal.

Outdoor Air Quality and Environmental Problems

There are some situations where open burning may be necessary – such as controlled burning by professionals to prevent forest fires. Unfortunately, smoke produced is a major source of air pollution and directly affects our quality of life. Smoke is a complex mixture of gases and microscopic particles that is an irritant to eyes and airways, and may cause or aggravate respiratory illness and heart disease. In some rare cases, breathing smoke can cause death.

Smoke from an open fire can seriously pollute your neighborhood. This is especially true when burning takes place on calm days with no wind. The particles and gases produced can build to levels that are harmful for days. A haze may cover whole communities and reduce visibility. Calm days are often the times that people choose for open burns, because they are concerned about forest fires and do not want to blow smoke into their neighbours’ yards.

Closing doors and windows will not help. Smoke can easily waft through small cracks and holes, resulting in polluting your indoor air as well as the outdoor air.

What about chimneas?

Chimneas are ceramic wood burning appliances that people use outdoors, often on patios. The same concerns apply here as to other open burning. The open design of these devices leads to inefficient burning of the wood. Wood smoke from chimneas may stay closer to the ground since they have low chimney stacks, and can pose a problem for neighbours.

Health Effects

Even smoke from leaf burning can irritate the eyes, nose and throats of healthy adults. Smoke from open burning can be much more harmful to small children, the elderly, and people with lung problems such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This is because the visible smoke from leaf fires is made up almost entirely of tiny particles that can reach deep into lung tissue and cause symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, chest pain and shortness of breath. These symptoms may not occur until several days after exposure to large amounts of leaf smoke.

Besides being an irritant, smoke contains many hazardous chemicals potentially harmful to human health. These include:

Acrolein is an alcohol aldehyde that smells bad, and irritates eyes and airways.

Formaldehyde is a preservative and a carcinogen, and can cause headaches and airway irritation. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas produced by incomplete combustion. Exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can cause headaches, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Exposure to very high levels can cause seizures, coma, respiratory failure, and death.

Nitrous oxides are gases that make it difficult to breathe and trigger asthma attacks.

Particulate matter (PM) are microscopic particles that can be breathed deep into the lungs. PM can contribute to respiratory illnesses and worsen conditions such as asthma or COPD. Scientists now believe that there is no safe level for exposure to PM. PM is considered toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) are a group of approximately 10,000 compounds. Most PAHs are from incomplete burning of carbon-containing materials like oil, wood, garbage or coal. PAHs may be attached to dust or ash and cause lung irritation. Skin contact with PAHs may cause redness, blistering, and peeling. They are believed to increase the risk of cancer with prolonged exposure.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a group of many different carbon-based compounds, some of which are directly toxic, such as benzene, which is carcinogenic. VOCs combine with nitrogen oxides to create ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone is a lung irritant, causes asthma attacks and may cause cancer if exposure is prolonged.

Dioxins can cause a variety of health problems. Dioxin exposure has been linked to: increased risk of cancer, developmental problems in children, heart disease, diabetes and harm to the immune system.

What You Can Do

• Don’t burn if you don’t HAVE to. Many urban areas have by-laws banning open burning.

• Instead of burning debris, start a compost pile in your backyard for organic materials.

• Reduce, reuse, recycle products whenever possible.

• Clean up wood debris by using a chipper to make mulch or decorative chips. If you heat with wood, you should only use wood that has been properly dried and seasoned.

• Sawmill waste does not need to be burned at all. This residue can be recycled as chips for pulp and fiberboard, and compost and mulch.

• Support efforts to reduce smoke pollution. Spread the news! Tell your friends, family, and neighbors how they can improve air quality.

If you must burn:

• Follow the open burning rules that apply to your community and/or your industry. Contact your local fire services and/or Department of Environment for information on burning regulations.

• Be aware of temperature inversions when smoke won’t dissipate. (*Temperature inversions occur when the air near the surface of the earth is cooler than the air above, trapping air pollutants close to the ground and allowing them to build up.)

• Be aware of “no-burn” periods.

NEVER burn toxic materials, such as plastics, tires, construction and demolition waste, treated and painted wood, and rubber. Find out where you can recycle these products or dispose of them safely.

• Make sure that any debris that you burn from gardening, agriculture, and land development is ONLY organic material (e.g. leaves, grass clippings, branches and weeds). Make sure the debris is dry. Wet and damp materials create more smoke.

• For prescribed burning, the size of such a burn can be limited. It should never be allowed to smolder or to include non-organic materials.

Health experts, environment experts and thousands of Canadians are concerned about the risks of air pollution. The Lung Association is committed to helping people take action to reduce those risks. That’s why we’ve created C.A.N. DO, The Movement for Clean Air Now. For more information, contact The Lung Association at 1-888-566-5864 (LUNG) or visit our web site at www.lung.ca.