Trash + Fire = Dangerous Dioxins

by Jenna Bhaloo on March 27, 2014

Trash + Fire = Dangerous Dioxins

A picture of buying trash in the United Arab Emirates

A picture of buying trash in the United Arab Emirates

Fire. Smoke. Thick air. Orange. And the stench of something burning. I look around –nothing. I keep on walking, turn the corner, and then I see it. On the other side of the road, the abandoned area is the source of this distinct smell. I am in the city of Marrakech – and happening just minutes away from the cultural center where I was just studying Arabic, was someone lighting their trash on fire.

Because I had never been exposed to this before, it was not until then that I realized how prevalent trash burning was in the developing world; in all the developing countries I’ve visited: Morocco, Honduras, Palestine, etc., people use open trash burning in the streets and near their homes due to inadequate waste management. I was surprised to learn that a form of controlled backyard burning also occurs in the United States, using burn barrels instead of solely burning trash, especially in rural areas where trash pick-up municipal service (Otto, 2013). At first I thought trash burning was an effective method of disposing of solid waste. Besides the smell of the smoke, how harmful could it be, right? Wrong. I never realized how dangerous trash burning could be to our health until we learned about toxins in our global environmental health class.

A persistent environmental pollutant, dioxin is a by-product of both natural and industrial methods, such as forest fire, backyard burning, or uncontrolled manufacturing waste (“Dioxin,” n.d.). Because of this, almost every one has been exposed to dioxin, as it is ubiquitously present in low levels. However, because dioxin can be highly toxic with increased exposure, agencies such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the environmental agencies at the WHO have created initiatives to reduce the amount of preliminary exposure to dioxin (“WHO | Dioxins and their effects on human health,” n.d.).

One of the most famous, most toxic forms of dioxin was found to be a contaminant of the herbicide Agent Orange, which was used during the Vietnam War (“The Hidden Hazards,” 2003). Humans are exposed to dioxins through the ingestion of food; dioxins typically “accumulate within the food chain” (“The Hidden Hazards,” 2003). Dairy products, such as milk and cheese, meat, fish, and shellfish are the foods that tend to have the highest concentrations of dioxin compounds. Contamination of the food chain occurs when “airborne dioxins settle onto feed crops or onto water sources” (“The Hidden Hazards,” 2003). Dioxins accrue within the fat of animals; thus, when humans eat animal products, we too are exposed to dioxins (“The Hidden Hazards,” 2003).

The real danger from dioxin occurs when one is subjected to either short-term high exposure or long-term high exposure. The World Health Organization (WHO), states that high exposure levels to dioxin can be detrimental and cause serious adverse health effects such as reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, can interfere with hormones, and also cause cancer” (“WHO | Dioxins and their effects on human health,” n.d.). One of the most famous incidents of short-term high exposure was former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with TCDD. He developed chloracne, which is a disease that causes skin lesions, skin darkening, and acne-like distortion. Long-term high exposures can result in problems with the reproductive, endocrine, nervous, and immune systems and can also be carcinogenic (“WHO | Dioxins and their effects on human health,” n.d.).

Former Ukranian President, Viktor Yushchenko, before, during, and after bring poisoned by dioxin.

Former Ukranian President, Viktor Yushchenko, before, during, and after bring poisoned by dioxin.

This is why it is extremely important that the presence of dioxin in the environment must be reduced and maintained at low-risk level, as it poses serious health consequences. According to the EPA, they have already “reduced air emissions of dioxins by 90 percent so that today, most American have only low-level exposure to dioxins,” and can therefore live in an environment freer of pollutions. (“Dioxin,” n.d.).

Today, new technologies have made controlled waste incineration with low pollutant/dioxin emission available for use; this allows current pollution emissions rates to reduce pollution even more than EPA standards require (Tenenbaum, D., 2011). Europe is already much farther ahead than the United States when it comes to using these new technologies by reusing, recycling, and using controlled waste incineration techniques to convert waste into heat and electric energy. Now that we have these advancements in technology, why is backyard trash burning via controlled methods such as burn barrels and uncontrolled manners, still occurring in the United States and in many other countries? Should the United States implement these environmentally friendly practices into our waste management services? I believe we should! As air pollution from dioxin and other compounds becomes a major environmental health issue, anything we can do to eliminate or reduce air pollution will be beneficial to our futures.

A "burn barrel" is used to burn trash in one's own backyard.

A “burn barrel” is used to burn trash in one’s own backyard.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

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