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Environmental and health impacts of open burning

All open burning poses risks to the environment and public health. Smoke pollutes the air we breathe. Ash pollutes our soil, groundwater, lakes, rivers and streams. Burning anything in the outdoors can cause a wildfire. Burning only approved materials and following state regulations can minimize the potential for these harmful effects.


Environmental impacts of smoke

Burning prohibited materials, such as garbage, plastic and painted or treated wood, is harmful to the environment because these materials release toxic chemicals that pollute our air. Polluted air can be inhaled by humans and animals, and deposited in the soil and surface water and on plants.

Residue from burning contaminates the soil and groundwater and can enter the human food chain through crops and livestock. In addition, certain chemicals released by burning can accumulate in the fats of animals and then in humans as we consume meat, fish and dairy products.

Smoke and soot can travel long distances. Odors can be bothersome to people. Both odors and smoke residue can enter houses or can impact anything outside of houses, like cars or hanging laundry. The gases released by open burning can also corrode metal siding and damage paint on buildings.

Impacts of Burning Plastic

Some of the most dangerous chemicals created and released during burning are those from burning plastics, such as dioxins, which are byproducts formed when chlorine-containing products are burned. Dioxins tend to adhere to the waxy surface of leaves and enter the food chain in this way. Even if certain types of plastic (such as polyethylene or polypropylene) do not contain chlorine, other materials attached to or burned with the plastic may be a chlorine source.

Unburned portions of the plastic become litter on the ground and in lakes and rivers. As it disintegrates, animals may eat the plastic and get sick. Larger pieces of plastic can become a breeding ground for diseases, such as by trapping water that provides habitat for mosquitoes.

Health impacts of smoke

Impacts of Smoke from Burning Clean Wood and Leaves

When household waste, like wood and leaves, are burned, they produce smoke, which contains vapors and particulate matter (solid and liquid droplets suspended in the air). Air pollution from smoke can impact human health.

People exposed to these air pollutants can experience eye and nose irritation, difficulty breathing, coughing and headaches. People with heart disease, asthma, emphysema or other respiratory diseases are especially sensitive to air pollutants. Other health problems aggravated by burning include lung infections, pneumonia, bronchiolitis and allergies.

Impacts of Smoke from Burning Trash and Plastic

Burning trash can cause long-term health problems. 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.

Other chemicals released while burning plastic include benzo(a)pyrene (BAP) and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have both been shown to cause cancer. If agricultural bags or containers are contaminated with pesticides or other harmful substances, those will also be released into the air.


Environmental impacts of wildfire

Debris burning is the number one cause of wildfires in Wisconsin and accounts for thousands of acres of forested land unintentionally burned, and hundreds of structures threatened every year. Unplanned fires pose a serious threat to public safety, property and our natural resources.

Experiencing a wildfire on your property can be devastating. Wildfire damage can be visually disturbing and physically disruptive. The environmental impacts are often not over after the flames are put out. Tree mortality, invasive plants, erosion and road instability are just some of the dangers landowners face after a wildfire.

Health impacts of wildfire

The unfortunate reality is that some fires can threaten or take lives. It is possible to sustain serious burn injuries, and in some cases even die, when attempting to suppress an escaped fire. However, the majority of fatalities are indirectly related to the fire (e.g., cardiac arrest due to excessive smoke inhalation, or from the physical or emotional trauma of trying to extinguish the fire).

If a fire escapes your control, never try to suppress the fire yourself. Dial 911 immediately. Uncontrolled wildfires can be dangerous for both those responsible for or immediately impacted by the fire, as well as emergency responders, who are forced to engage in high-risk suppression efforts that may compromise their health and safety.

For more information on the respiratory health impacts of wildfire smoke, review DNR’s Particle pollution webpage Wildfire Smoke section or view the Committed to Clean Air: Particle Pollution video on DNR’s YouTube channel.


Environmental impacts of ash

Any fire will create ash waste. While wood ash contains some nutrients required by plants for healthy growth, ash is harmful for our lakes, ponds and rivers. Ash contains phosphorous, potassium and trace amounts of micro-nutrients, such as iron, manganese, boron, copper and zinc, all of which can disrupt the delicate ecosystems of water bodies. For example, phosphorus is a powerful growth agent that stimulates algae growth in water bodies. As important as some algae is to the natural food chain, too much algae can result in the formation of scum, foul odors, low oxygen in the water and offensive views.

When burning debris, like brush, leaves, tree limbs or clean scrap wood, avoid burning near a waterway shoreline. Burning along a shoreline kills vegetation and changes the soil structure, with the end result being more soil erosion into the lake.

Health impacts of ash

Ash can impact human health through the leaching of heavy metals and other potentially toxic compounds that can end up in streams, lakes and rivers, or in drinking water supplies and our food chain. This is especially true if the materials being burned include anything besides dry, combustible rubbish, yard waste and unpainted and untreated wood. Disposal of ash waste in a licensed landfill can avoid these problems.

Additional resources

Additional resources

The following resources contain additional information about health and environmental impacts and effects of open burning.