2009: WI: Health Hazards Trash and Wood Burning


Health Hazards

Trash and Wood Burning

Why be concerned about trash and wood burning?

When wood, household garbage, plastic, or leaves are burned, they produce smoke and

release toxic gases. The smoke contains vapors and solid compounds suspended in the

air called particulate matter. The particulate matter and toxic gases released during

burning can be very irritating to people’s health.

People who are exposed to these air pollutants can experience eye and nose irritation,

breathing difficulty, coughing, and headaches. People with heart disease, asthma,

emphysema, or other respiratory diseases are especially sensitive to air pollutants. The

chance of human health effects occurring depends mostly on the concentration of air

pollutants in people’s breathing zone (the air that’s breathed around the nose and

mouth). Typically, no adverse health effects are expected, unless people are very close

to the source of smoke or the smoke isn’t diluted enough with clean air.

The toxic chemicals released during burning include nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide,

volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), and polycyclic organic matter (POMs). Burning

plastic and treated wood also releases heavy metals and toxic chemicals such as dioxin.

Trash burning

Before scientists learned about the dangers of burning trash, it was commonly burned at

homes and landfills. Because of the smoke, air pollution, and odor complaints of

backyard burning, many local governments prohibit residential trash burning.

Wisconsin state law also restricts certain types of open-burning.

Backyard trash burning is especially harmful because it releases chemicals that are

persistent in the environment, polluting our air, food, lakes and streams. A recent study

found that residential trash burning from a single home could release more dioxin into

the air than an industrial incinerator.

Wood burning for residential heating

Most people do not know that wood smoke can be a cause of air pollution. Camp fires,

residential fireplaces, and wood stoves all release toxic chemicals when they burn

wood. However, burning only clean, dry wood with lots of oxygen can greatly reduce

air pollution and smoke. New U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved

wood stoves and fireplaces greatly reduce the level of air pollution. Also burning

particleboard, treated, stained, painted or wet wood should be avoided because when

burned, they release very toxic chemicals.

Outdoor wood burning stoves, also called waterstoves, are used to heat water for homes.

These stoves operate by damping the fire to prolong the fuel source. This “damping”

produces harmful chemicals and smoke due to incomplete (low temperature, oxygen

starved) burning. For this reason, some local ordinances ban or regulate their use.

State of Wisconsin

How does trash and wood burning cause health problems?

The gases released by trash and wood burning can cause breathing irritation. Some of

these gases are called aldehydes, which cause strong irritation when they contact the

eyes, nose, and throat. Aldehyde and other organic gases are the reason why smoke

burns ones eyes.

Smoke from wood and trash contains very small particles that can be breathed deep into

the lungs. Once trapped in the lungs, these particles can cause cell damage. The cell

damage can eventually make breathing difficult. In general, the health risk posed by

smoke is small, as long as the smoke is mixed with plenty of outdoor air. However,

smoke from burning trash and wood can still be harmful if the smoke accumulates near


The small particles in wood smoke can worsen heart conditions by preventing oxygen

from reaching tissues. Breathing difficulties such as asthma, may increase in adults or

children, if they breathe too much smoke. Other health problems aggravated by burning

include lung infections such as acute pneumonia and bronchiolitis. Allergies can be

worsened. Burning trash can cause other long-term health problems.

What can be done to reduce air pollution from residential burning?


Do not burn residential trash, such as garbage, plastic, old furniture, or construction

material, like treated wood products or particleboard.


Become aware of state and local burning laws, e.g. Wisconsin Administrative Code

NR 429.04 prohibits burning:

§ Wet cardboard, paper or other trash

§ Plastics of any kind, including milk bottles and plastic bags


Oily substances, such as greasy rags, oil filters


Rubber products, including tires and hoses


Asphalt, including asphalt roofing shingles or tarpaper.


Ensure that wood stoves are properly installed and swept regularly. Reduce

pollution further by increasing chimney height, allow plenty of oxygen (keeping the

flue open), and burn only clean, dry, and untreated wood.


Use cleaner heating devices, like EPA certified wood stoves. Fireplace inserts and

indoor wood burning stoves manufactured after 1992 meet EPA efficiency

standards. These stoves emit 85% less smoke or pollution and require 30% less

wood to heat than older stoves.


Use composting, mulching, recycling, or other garbage disposal options.

· Encourage your local government to regulate leaf burning, waterstoves, etc.

For more information


Contact the Wisconsin Division of Public Health, Bureau of Environmental Health,

PO Box 2659, Madison, WI 53701-2659, (608) 266-1120; or


Visit the department’s website, http://www.dhfs.state.wi.us/eh

Prepared by the Wisconsin Division of Public Health, with funds from the Agency

for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, USDHHS.

PPH 45011 2/01

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