There is something very satisfying about setting fire to your trash and reducing it to a pile of ashes. Traditionally, this is how people all over the world have dealt with their garbage.

Disposing of household trash by burning it in a burn barrel or a small, open fire may seem harmless enough, but this practice pollutes the air and earth. Many common household materials can release toxic chemicals when they are burned, endangering human health.

Burn barrels are illegal in Washington state. Though not illegal in Oregon, the Department of Environmental Quality strongly discourages the use of burn barrels. They create inefficient, low-temperature fires that burn without much oxygen; this creates dense smoke, full of toxic substances.

The only materials that can be burned without releasing unsafe substances are untreated wood, paper and natural vegetation. Even something as seemingly harmless as bleached paper contains chlorine, which releases dioxin when burned. Dioxin is a cause of cancer and birth defects.

Plastics, carpeting, carpet padding and other foam products, fiberglass, petroleum products, vinyl flooring, PVC pipe and asphalt roofing material are all especially bad for the environment when burned. It is illegal to burn any of these materials in both Oregon and Washington.

Plastics in your household garbage pose a significant threat to human health if burned. So many items we purchase - food, clothing, office supplies, toys and more - come wrapped in plastic. These plastic materials, such as polyvinyl chloride, polyvinylidene chloride and polystyrene, release toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, styrene, dioxins and furans when they are burned.

Obviously, the smoke released from trash fires can hurt your lungs and give you a headache, as anyone who has stood too close to a burn barrel or open fire knows. Small children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with asthma, emphysema or other lung problems are at the greatest risk of harm.

It's the invisible pollutants released when trash is burned that are even more harmful. Exposure to dioxins, furans and other chemicals can cause cancer, birth defects, and damage to the reproductive and immune systems.

So, what to do with your household trash?

First, minimize the amount of trash you create by paying more attention to your buying habits. Buying in bulk can decrease the amount of plastic packaging you have to throw away. Reusable canvas shopping bags eliminate the "paper or plastic?" dilemma at the grocery store, plus they are sturdy and easy to carry.

Second, recycle whatever you can. Most communities have newspaper, glass and metal recycling. Plastic, mixed paper and cardboard also can be recycled, though it is not as common.

Third, compost kitchen and yard waste.

Fourth, donate items to others if they might be useful, rather than throwing them in the trash. Many agencies collect used clothing and furniture. Nursing homes and hospitals may appreciate getting your magazines after you have read them.

Despite all your efforts, you will still need to dispose of some trash. If you don't have a garbage hauler coming by regularly, the best thing to do is take it to the nearest landfill or incinerator. Incinerators burn trash much more efficiently than burn barrels, and release a small fraction of the pollution.

Air pollution from indoor woodstoves or fireplaces is a wintertime problem in the Pacific Northwest. To help minimize this health threat, burn only firewood that has been dried for at least six months after it has been split. Build small, hot fires with the damper open to let in plenty of air. A fire that releases a lot of smoke is burning inefficiently and polluting the environment.

Kathryn B. Brown is a family nurse practitioner with a master's degree in nursing from OHSU. Is there a health topic you would like to read about? Send ideas to You can find more local health news and information in the Health section at

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