When garbage is burnt, the resulting smoke and air-borne fumes contain chemicals.
These chemicals were either part of the items in the garbage, or the heat from the burning garbage caused certain chemicals to mix and join together to make new airborne substances.
According to the pamphlet Health Effects of Burning Trash, developed for the Solid Waste Alaska Network, burning certain types of garbage is not healthy as it can release toxic chemicals and elements into the air.
Here, abridged and with some extra explanations and commentary added by this author, is information from that pamphlet about what happens when certain items that form part of household garbage are burnt.
To get the entire Alaskan pamphlet, type “Solid Waste Alaska Network Health Effects of Burning Trash” into the Google search engine and it should be the first hit.
One form of garbage is made of polystyrene and styrenes.
Examples are Styrofoam cups, meat trays, egg cartons, packaging kernels, some take-away food containers and certain types of single use plastic forks and spoons.
When they are set on fire, they release dioxins and chlorinated furans.
Exposure to dioxins and furans has been associated with a range of adverse health effects.
For example dioxins can cause certain types of cancer.
The type and occurrence of the adverse health effects typically depend on the level and duration of exposure.
Another type of plastic that can enter the household waste stream is polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC.
It is sometimes, but not always, identified by having the number 3 within a recycling symbol marked on the plastic.
PVC is used in plastic bottles and jugs, children’s toys, vinyl tubing, flooring and drainpipes.
It is also found all over houses in Granger.
The exterior of the houses are clad in vinyl siding.
That sub-division is not known as the vinyl village for nothing.
The nasty thing about PVC is that it forms hydrochloric acid as well as dioxins when burned.
It also may contribute to dioxin formation from other wastes because it has so much chlorine.
The more chlorine a dioxin or furan has, the more toxic its effects.
Even certain paper products could release dangerous chemicals when burnt.
Burning bleached paper products such as frozen food, bakery and pizza boxes releases halogenated hydrocarbons.
These compounds have been associated with blood abnormalities, low white cells and leukemia as well as liver damage from continued exposure to high doses.
When chucking things into the household garbage it sometimes goes beyond basic packaging.
Drapes, bits of furniture, carpets, children’s clothes, wood finishes, sealants and adhesives will often end up in the trash.
When burnt these materials will produce varying amounts of hydrogen cyanide and phosgene. In high concentrations these gases are poisonous.
There is also the possibility of releasing poly-brominated diphenyl ester.
Despite being a flame-retardant chemical, the item it is a part of can still be set on fire.
If the item is disposed of incorrectly, such as through burning in a garbage pile or barrel, the chemical can become airborne. The resulting airborne fumes could damage the human nervous and reproductive system.
Burning garbage releases smoke.
Within the smoke are small particles, or what is called particulate matter.
These particles in the smoke can be inhaled, and they might be associated with some of the contaminants mentioned previously.
Burning garbage also releases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides.
Carbon dioxide is causing human-related climate change.
If that was not enough, it and the nitrous oxides can also cause or exacerbate respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.
Now it must be recognized that the sources of information for this column came from Alaska.
It is time to add a Yukon context.
It would appear the dumps at Beaver Creek, Braeburn, Burwash Landing, Canyon Creek, Carcross, Champagne, Deep Creek, Destruction Bay, Horse Camp Hill, Johnson’s Crossing, Keno City, Old Crow, Pelly Crossing, Ross River, Silver City, Stewart Crossing, Tagish, and Upper Liard burn household garbage.
Most, but not all, mineral exploration and mining camps burn waste similar in nature to household garbage.
Some municipalities, such as Whitehorse and Carmacks, bury household waste.
Other dumps, like the ones at Mount Lorne, Marsh Lake and Teslin are transfer stations.
They truck their waste to Whitehorse for burial.
Burying waste can also have negative environment and health impacts, but that is a column for another day.
Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse based part-time environmentalist.