The Menace of Trash Burning

Trash burning as a means of solid waste disposal is a common phenomenon worldwide, especially in developing countries. The lack of waste management infrastructure leads to burning of trash as a form of inexpensive waste disposal. Unfortunately, the major environmental and health effects of burning trash are either widely unknown or grossly under-estimated to the vast majority of the population.

Burning of garbage is a particular health concern because of the substantial amount of dioxins it produces. A dioxin is a highly toxic environmental pollutant that is released when household waste is burned.  Most of the dioxins that are released into the air during the burning process end up on the leaves of green vegetation.

These plants are then eaten by dairy animals such as cows, sheep and goats which results in the dioxins being stored and accumulating in the animal’s fatty tissues. Once this occurs, dioxins are difficult to avoid and people are exposed to them primarily by eating meat and other dairy products, especially those high in fat.

Furthermore, this type of open burning of solid wastes also causes particle pollution.  Particle pollution refers to microscopic particles that end up in the lungs and cause enormous amounts of human health problems, such as asthma and bronchitis. Unfortunately, children and the elderly who are exposed to dioxins are among the highest at risk for contracting these illnesses.

Other harmful carcinogens like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and hexachlorobenzene (HCB) are consequences of outdoor burning. These pollutants have been known to cause numerous amounts of health problems ranging from skin irritation to liver and kidney damage and even in some more serious cases have been linked to cancer.

The ash itself that is produced when trash is burned often contains mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic.  “Garden vegetables can absorb and accumulate these metals, which can make them dangerous to eat. Children playing in the yard or garden can incidentally ingest soil containing these metals.

Also, rain can wash the ash into groundwater and surface water, contaminating drinking water and food.” This is not even mentioning the population of garbage-pickers who are putting their health on the line while sorting municipal wastes.

Catherine Hansen

Catherine Hansen is a returned Peace Corps volunteer and graduate from West Virginia University, where she studied for her Masters in Sustainable Development. She recently returned from a 27-month service in Morocco where she was serving as a Youth Development volunteer designing literacy, health, and environmental programming for youth in collaboration with local associations and volunteers. One of her main life goals is to share her passion for protecting the environment from human harm by bringing awareness to environmental issues that are often times over looked.Through outreach and education, Catherine hopes to inspire a refreshed appreciation for our natural world. She aims to begin her career in environmental services within the year.

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