MODULE 1 Health and Environmental Effects of Smoke

Burning Household Trash

Smoke from burning trash can have both short-term and long-term health effects.   Trash contains plastics, metals, and synthetic materials that create Toxic Air Contaminants (TACs) when burned. These TACs include dioxins, benzene, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), toluene, polycyclic organic matter and other compounds.  TACS are known to cause respiratory ailments, headaches, stress human immune systems, and are potentially carcinogenic (i.e., cancer-causing).  Short-term effects include burning or itchy eyes, shortness of breath, and asthma attacks. Long-term effects may include respiratory disease, lung or immune system damage, cancer, and premature death. Infants, small children and the elderly are especially sensitive to the toxic compounds produced by trash.

Toxic Air Contaminants (TACs) in smoke from trash can travel long distances and deposit on soil, plants and in water.  The largest source of dioxin emissions is the uncontrolled burning of household trash.  The ash in a burn pile also contains toxic pollutants which can spread into the soil and water. Animals and fish can ingest the pollutants and accumulate them in their fatty tissue; plants can also absorb them.1 When contaminated food is eaten, the pollutants are passed on to people. Simply avoiding the plume of smoke does not eliminate potential health risks.

The California Air Resources Board determined the health effects from burning household trash is so severe they enacted statewide rules banning household waste burning and burn barrel use in 20042.  District Rule 300 Open Burning Section 300.1.E.5.c also prohibits the burning of household trash.

1US EPA website:
2CARB website: