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The 1997 US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) report, “Evaluation of Emissions from the Open Burning of Household Waste in Barrels”, provides a quantification of pollutants released by open waste fires.  (Lemieux, 1997)  The author indicates that burning the residential waste (paper, plastics, rubber, foam rubber and metal foils) of 1.5 families in barrels can release an amount of dioxins into the environment equal to that released by a municipal solid waste incinerator burning 200 tons per day.  In follow-up test burns, the Agency has determined that open waste burning creates and releases dioxins over a considerable range of values due to the highly complex nature of combustion.  (Gullett, 2000)  Open waste fires are highly productive of dioxins due to the low temperature at which combustion occurs and limited oxygen availability.  Sooty, smoldering fires are the fires that create dioxins most prodigiously.  When polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is  burned, dioxin emissions are increased.

Particulates, upon which are adsorbed dioxins and dioxin-like compounds, deposit from the polluted atmosphere onto animal feed crops such as pasture grass and corn.  Entry into the aquatic food chains occurs via contamination of surface waters.  Due to the highly persistent nature of these chemical pollutants, they bioaccumulate in the food chain.

As set forth in the EPA’s most recent dioxin inventory, open waste burning is considered to be the largest source of dioxin releases to the environment.  (US EPA, 2005)   It is estimated that approximately 20 million burning barrels are utilized for waste disposal in the United States.

A form of open burning that has been found to emit dioxins at greater rates than barrel burning is the burning of waste in open refuse heaps.  Such fires are used for disposal of plastics and other waste materials on farms.  These fires occur in close proximity to feed crops of cattle and other animals, and are thus likely to be particularly important in the contamination of the food supply. 

Many states have banned open waste burning.  Enforcement of these bans will be a necessary factor in the elimination of this polluting waste disposal practice.  Public education on the adverse health effects of exposure to the emissions of open waste fires can also significantly contribute to open burning elimination.


Gullett, B. K., P. Lemieux, C. Winterrowd, D. Winters. 2000.  PCDD/F Emissions from Uncontrolled Domestic Waste Burning.  Presented at Dioxin ’00, 20th International Symposium on Halogenated and Environmental Organic Pollutants & POPs, held Aug 13-17 at Monterey, CA.  Corrected revision of short paper in Organohalogen Compounds 46: 193-196.

Lemieux, P. 1997.  Evaluation of Emissions from the Open Burning of Household Waste in Barrels, Vol. 1. Technical Report, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Risk Management Research Laboratory, Research Triangle Park, NC.  EPA/600/R-97-134a (NTIS PB98-127343).

US EPA. 2005.  The Inventory of Sources and Environmental Releases of Dioxin-Like Compounds in the U.S.: the Year 2000 Update, March 2005 (EPA/600/p-03/002A) 



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