Burn Barrels Affect Your Air Quality
Find alternative ways to trash your trash

Duane Friend,Natural Resources Management Educator
University of Illinois Extension

Many people use burn barrels to get rid of household waste. A University of Illinois survey completed a few years ago showed that reasons for using a burn barrel included lack of trash pickup, independence, cost and reduced reliance on landfills. However, the waste generated by households today is much different than what was generated years ago.

Bleached paper, plastics, polystyrene foam and other synthetic materials make up a large part of today’s waste. When burned, many of these substances release toxic pollutants. It is estimated that more than 5,000 tons of pollutants are released into the atmosphere each year from burn barrels in Illinois.

Since most burn barrels create low temperature, low oxygen fires, such pollutants as dioxins, furans, aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds and ash are created and released into the atmosphere. Smoke containing these substances can easily be inhaled, and particulates can be deposited on plants and soil.

Dioxins and furans refer to a group of chemical compounds that share certain similar chemical structures and biological characteristics. Dioxins and furans are an unwanted byproduct of combustion; both from natural sources like forest fires and from man-made sources like power plants, burn barrels and industrial processes.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study estimates the amount of dioxins and furans emitted from burning household waste in the United States is greater than all other sources, including residential and industrial wood burning and utilities. In fact, burn barrels produced dioxins at levels more than two times greater per ton of refuse than municipal incinerators. The dioxins created and released into the air through backyard burning settle on plants. These plants are, in turn, eaten by animals, which store the dioxins in their fatty tissue.

Dioxins are classified by U.S. EPA as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic pollutants (PBTs). In other words, dioxins are long-lasting substances that can build up in the food chain to levels that are harmful to human and ecosystem health. Bioaccumulative means their concentration levels increase as they move up the food chain.
The ash that is left from burning may include substances such as mercury, lead and arsenic. If the ash is spread or incorporated in the nearby soil, plants can absorb it. Precipitation can also carry these substances off in surface runoff, or into groundwater.

In addition to health concerns, trash burning is the number one cause of timber fires in Illinois, exceeding lightning and campfires.

Information from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency states that if you live in any town in Illinois, it is illegal to burn anything except where landscape waste burning is allowed. Many local ordinances limit this type of burning as well.

If you do not live in a town or within a mile of a town with a population of 1,000 people or more, it is legal to burn household waste that is generated on the property as a result of normal household activities, except for food, food scraps and food packaging. Other examples of waste that can never be burned include commercial waste, furniture, construction or demolition debris, and tires.

If a burn barrel is going to be used outside prohibited areas, do not overload the barrel. Allow as much oxygen as possible to reach the fire to increase burning efficiency. Do not burn plastics or other synthetic materials that would increase the pollution potential of the smoke. Be sure that the fire is completely out before leaving, especially when combustible materials are within reach of wind carried embers.

The best way to reduce the amount of material being burned is to find alternative waste disposal methods besides burning. If trash pickup is available in your area, use it. Recycle items that are recyclable. Reduce the purchase of items that generate a lot of waste. Compost materials that you can compost.

For more information visit the following Web sites:
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency at:
United States Environmental Protection Agency at:

For more information

Duane Friend,Natural Resources Management Educator
University of Illinois Extension Springfield Extension Center

Contact him at 217-782-6515 or e-mail: