Outdoor Residential Waste Burning -- Public Health Information

This page last reviewed December 13, 2013

Do you know the dangers from burning household waste near your home? Today's trash contains plastics, metals, and synthetic materials that create dangerous chemicals when burned. These chemicals include dioxins, benzene, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and other compounds that are known to cause respiratory ailments, stress human immune systems, and are potentially carcinogenic.

Smoke and toxic emissions from burning residential waste stay close to the ground, potentially affecting the health of your family and neighbors. Children are generally more susceptible than adults to adverse health impacts from these air toxics. The toxics can be inhaled in the air or eaten in the form of fine particles that deposit on food or are absorbed into plants through the soil. Ultimately, these chemicals accumulate in our bodies.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) has identified residential waste burning as a major source of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (collectively referred to as dioxins).  Dioxins in particular are the most potent carcinogens identified to date by the ARB as toxic air contaminants (TACs).  In addition to dioxins, many other toxic air contaminants are generated from residential waste burning, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), benzene, and 1,3-butadiene.  These toxic air contaminants may result in substantial health impacts, ranging from headaches, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and liver and kidney damage, to cancer.  Other air pollutants found in smoke produced from residential waste burning include carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and particulate matter.  Most of the particulate matter emitted from residential waste burning is small enough to be inhaled and can be especially harmful to people with existing respiratory illness, the aged, and the very young.  Exposure to such particles may worsen existing disease conditions and can produce symptoms ranging from breathing difficulties to increased respiratory infection and even death.

More information is available from ARB's Community Health Program.