Health Risks and Environmental Impacts

Open burning releases harmful chemicals and particulate matter that affect human health and the environment. The type of pollutants being emitted depends on what is being burned. Smoke from burning vegetation and organic materials contains toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter that is small enough to enter the lungs and affect the respiratory system.

Smoke from the burning of trash, which is illegal, is especially toxic due to synthetic chemicals in coated papers, plastics, and other materials that people commonly throw away. This smoke may contain the above pollutants as well as dioxins, arsenic, mercury, chromium, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, and other hazardous air pollutants that have been found to be carcinogenic.

The wind transports these pollutants; they settle in our lakes, streams, and soil; and they seep into our ground water. The pollutants pass from one species to the next through the food chain and harm humans, wildlife, and the ecosystem. When open burning occurs during stagnant weather conditions, smoke lingers at ground level and creates a greater risk of direct exposure to harmful pollutants, especially during Air Quality Action Days.

A single residential fire or widespread residential fires -- such as the burning of leaves and yard debris during fall -- can adversely affect the health of family, friends, neighbors, and even your local community. Depending on what is being burned, smoke from open burning can:

  • Irritate the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Cause rashes, nausea, and headaches
  • Damage the lungs and cause breathing difficulties
  • Increase the risk of heart disease
  • Cause or aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema
  • Cause serious diseases (e.g., cancer)

People with existing health conditions, the elderly, and young children are especially vulnerable to the ill health effects of smoke.

IDEM provides additional resources on the health risks and environmental impacts of open burning, as well as recommended alternatives.