We are slowly poisoning ourselves with backyard burnings

Remains of a tire fire in Harlan County
Remains of a tire fire in Harlan County

Does anyone remember Times Beach?

Times Beach, Mo., a community of about 2,000 near St. Louis, was evacuated by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1983 after it was determined that waste industrial oil sprayed on the town's dirt roads (to suppress dust) contained dioxin, a dangerous carcinogen that bioaccumulates in the human body.

Dioxin is perhaps best known from its presence in Agent Orange, the deadly defoliant used during the Vietnam War. Dioxin causes birth defects, suppresses the immune system and is toxic at very low levels of exposure.

Dioxin is an unwanted byproduct of industrial processes such as bleaching paper, the manufacture of herbicides, metal smelting and the incineration of materials containing chlorine, such as the common plastic PVC (polyvinyl chloride).

Coming shortly after the discovery of toxic wastes buried beneath Love Canal, in New York, the Times Beach disaster fueled public concern about toxic waste.

Passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Superfund law for toxic cleanups now holds industry accountable for "cradle to grave" handling of the toxic substances they generate.

Much has been done since 1983 to reduce human exposure to dioxin: In the Bluegrass, public concerns about dioxin helped drive the adoption of alternatives to incineration for the destruction of chemical weapons stored near Richmond. Thanks to smart government regulations, human exposure to dioxin from industrial sources is diminishing.

However, there are increasing concerns about human exposure to dioxin from backyard trash burning. Experts say that one backyard burn barrel can generate as much dioxin as a municipal incinerator burning 400,000 pounds of trash a day.

This seems hard to believe, but the difference is the temperature of the burning process. A properly controlled municipal incinerator burns at very high temperatures, effectively destroying most dioxin molecules created by combustion. A smoldering, low-temperature trash fire does not.

In my travels throughout rural Kentucky, I have been shocked by the ubiquity of backyard trash burning. I have seen stinking, smoldering burn piles containing rolls of carpeting, television sets, shopping bags, plastic toys and plastic soda bottles. People are simply not aware of the danger, and much more public education is needed.

My grandad always burned trash out back, but his trash was mostly paper products. Look in your kitchen trash can; it is primarily plastic.

In the hollow communities of Eastern Kentucky, smoke from backyard trash fires hangs low over the houses, contaminating the soil and air of neighbors and their children.

We are poisoning ourselves.

Equally troubling is the widespread practice of burning tires. Campers and night fishermen have discovered that burning tires is an easy way to generate light and heat that lasts all night.

For example, the campground fire circles at Cranks Creek Lake in Harlan County contain half-burned soda bottles and coils of the wire cables found inside tires.

Any camper who roasts their marshmallows or hotdogs on that fire pit is consuming arsenic, dioxin and all the other nasty chemicals found in tires.

Did you know that it is illegal in Kentucky to burn fence posts or treated lumber? They contain arsenic. It is illegal to burn construction debris, plastic or painted wood.

It is also illegal to burn couches — University of Kentucky students take note. There is a fine of up to $25,000 per day.

Stopping illegal burning in Kentucky should be an issue that everyone can agree on. We all want healthy communities and healthy children. And we all have to breathe the same air.