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Garbage burning is safe, says report

Billowing smoke from burning batteries and TVs may look and smell bad, but it's safe, says an emissions study commissioned by the Yukon government.

Billowing smoke from burning batteries and TVs may look and smell bad, but it’s safe, says an emissions study commissioned by the Yukon government.

“I did not say that you can’t smell it and I did not say that you can’t see it,” said Richmond-based environmental engineer Chris Marson.

But the odour threshold and the hazard threshold are “not necessarily related,” he said.

The government plans to eliminate open burning by 2012. But officials decided to study the health effects of open burning in the interest of “getting the full picture.”

“There’s a whole number of factors that are going to be measured here, this is just one of them,” said Paul Moore, assistant deputy minister for Community Services.

It also helps prioritize which dumps require attention the soonest, said Kirn Dhillon, an environmental engineer contracted to review the territory’s solid- waste policy.

Studying a soon-to-be-obsolete practice doesn’t conflict with the government’s stated intention to move forward “as fast as possible” with an end to the burning.

“We’re working to find a solution as fast as we can, to make sure that human health and the environment are balanced with costs,” said Moore.

“Human health and environmental concerns have to be put into that equation.”

Narson collected data on local topography, weather and the estimated amount of waste burned.

After running those inputs through a model, Narson analyzed 33 potential toxins, and isolated the five most potent.

Microscopic particulates topped the list

—but even under the worst conditions, community homes will only be hit by 50 per cent of the amount needed to create health damage, according to the study.

In Carcross, anybody within 900 metres of the dump could find themselves inhaling toxins—but no homes fall within the danger radius.

“Based on available mapping and imagery, there currently do not appear to be any residences located within (900 metres),” said the report.

Only six communities were modelled out of 16 Yukon communities that currently burn garbage.

Computer modelling is common practice, and typically provides more accurate results than on-the-ground monitoring, said Marson.

“Nothing personal, but I feel like I’m being spun by a tobacco company executive who’s telling me that cigarette smoking’s not hazardous to your health,” said CBC Radio One’s Vic Istchenko during Thursday afternoon’s news conference.

“These are the results,” said Marson, adding that he did not “make up” the inputs.

“This is a scientific study. You can’t guess in advance what the answer’s going to be.”

The public should avoid dump sites while a burn is taking place, said Marson.

And you shouldn’t burn glues, paints and batteries, said the report.

The unknown quantity and composition of waste, as well as an irregular burning schedule make it hard to determine the exact health effects of burning trash, said a February report by the Yukon Environmental Socio-Economic Assessment Board.

“Pollution prevention by prohibiting burning hazardous wastes is absolutely necessary,” said a January board submission by Doug Davidge, an Environment Canada assessment officer.

Cost-cutting by burn contractors and poor dumping practices make it “difficult to control” when, and how much, waste is burned, wrote Davidge.

In March, a Tagish-based Environment Canada pollution research station was forced to close because it was swamped by pollutants from a nearby community dump.

“The goal here is really to create the most sustainable solid-waste system—environmentally, human health and fiscal—balancing all those components,” said Moore.

Contact Tristin Hopper at