Backyard Trash-burning a Major Source of Dioxin

Published February 1, 2003

A new publication by the Chlorine Chemistry Council, Backyard Trash Burning: The Wrong Answer, warns of the increasingly significant contribution of uncontrolled backyard trash-burning to pollutant levels. At a time when successful cooperation among industry, government, and environmental organizations has resulted in major declines in overall industrial and municipal dioxin emissions (down 92 percent since 1987), EPA projects backyard trash-burning will be a major source of dioxins by 2004.

Backyard trash-burning is common in rural areas, especially where trash removal service is not provided by the local government or is prohibitively expensive because of a sparsely located population. As a result, many families dispose of their household waste by burning it outdoors, either in metal receptacles or directly on the ground. While open burning is seen by some as an inexpensive, convenient solution for dealing with household trash, it is also highly polluting.

A modern municipal waste incinerator serving 150,000 families, operating under highly controlled conditions designed to reduce formation and emission of air pollutants emits, on average, an amount of dioxin equivalent in weight to a single straight pin (approximately 0.072 grams). The same amount of dioxin is released when only 20 families burn their trash.

The CCC brochure also addresses the issue of PVC contribution in dioxin pollution. Scientific experiments have shown the generation of dioxin in backyard burning correlates best with variables related to combustion such as temperature and carbon monoxide, not the presence of PVC. Eliminating PVC, therefore, will not prevent dioxin formation as dioxins are commonly produced in virtually any combustion environment.

S. Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, shares his thoughts on environment and climate news stories of the month. Singer’s The Week That Was columns can be found at