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Backyard Burning
by Rae Seymour and Tom Pogel

Backyard burning involves a lot more than just a bad smell. People complain mainly of the smell and smoke that interrupts their enjoyment of the outdoors, whether they are on their own property or out in the community. But the negative impact of burning garbage on our health and environment remains virtually unknown to a large number of people. The continued practice of burning garbage on the reservation has the Clean Air Program of The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's Environment Division concerned because of the serious effect associated with it. The problem is preventable and the key to resolving it is in community awareness.

Most burn barrels operate at temperatures of 400-500 F, which is considerably lower than commercial incinerators. The lower burning temperature is caused by poor oxygen air flow in the barrels. Because the burn barrels do not reach a high enough temperature, the trash doesn't completely burn. Burn barrels, when compared to incinerators, produce 310 times the amount of organic gases, 12,000 times the amount of carbon monoxide, 30 times the amount of carbon dioxide, and 40 times the amount of particles that incinerators produce for the same amount of garbage burned. The particles cause the health problems that we will discuss later. Particles that are larger in size can travel downwind and land on the ground. A study revealed that this problem occurs with about 50% of the particles. This amounts to a fallout of approximately 120 pounds of particles per ton of burned refuse, which affects our health and environment.

Products of incomplete combustion present the greatest risk to particulate contamination. Plastics that do not completely burn contain amounts of benzene and toluene, which are suspected carcinogens (cancer-causing substances). Unburned ash contains heavy metals such as chromium, lead, and cadmium, which can leach into the groundwater and contaminate it. This ash should not be spread in gardens or in the yard.

Since half of the particles produced in barrel burning are incredibly small, they can easily pose problems by traveling directly into homes, as well as miles away. These particles that develop from burn barrels can cause diseases such as asthma, cancer, lung disease, sudden elderly heart attack and sudden infant death syndrome. Studies have shown that nearly 60,000 Americans die each year from the inhalation of soot. Particles cling to and scar lung tissue. This problem is a large factor in children who develop asthma. Children develop these problems more quickly because they have a higher breathing rate than adults. Pregnant mothers infect their unborn child each time they breathe in contaminated air, and this can alter the child's DNA in the early months of pregnancy. Inhalation of these particles has also been shown to alter our immune systems.

Burn barrels produce highly visible plumes of smoke. Due to the low altitude of the burn barrels the smoke does not have enough time to disperse into the atmosphere. This can result in high particulate concentrations miles downwind from burn sites. Many compounds that are burned can produce unappealing odors, which also present problems for those homes downwind from a burn sites.

Many healthy alternatives to burning trash in backyard barrels exist. They include the following:

  • Compost leaves, lawn clippings, and garbage whenever possible.
  • Separate, recycle, and reuse plastics, papers, and metal cans.
  • Dispose of garbage properly through roadside garbage pick-ups (even with concerns of landfills becoming full, garbage pick-up still a preferred alternative over the burning of garbage).
  • For larger items, items that may contain toxic materials, or items that are not combustible, wait for community "spring clean-ups" for disposal.

These alternatives are easy to follow and do not require much of an adjustment. To make them effective, the entire community's participation is necessary in order to provide for a safe and healthy environment for everyone in Akwesasne.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's Clean Air Program has introduced a draft of "Burn Regulations," which is expected to be enacted this fall. These Burn Regulations identify prohibited and restricted burning. Restricted burning is any type of burning that will be allowed through permit only. If the proposed regulations go through, they will give the Tribe greater control over the problem and a means to enforce it. But until these regulations go into effect, community participation is vital for the elimination of this hazard from Akwesasne.

and from information provided by Laura Weber.

This article was written for a Professional writing course at Clarkson University by two seniors:

Rae Seymour is majoring in Psychology and is from Akwesasne and Tom Pogel, Chemical Engineering student from Rochester, N.Y.