Emmet County DPW Media Release, January 31, 2018
Backyard burning of garbage is largely illegal in Michigan and it is practiced by only a tiny percent of residents–even in rural areas—but it has an outsized health impact. Inversions of the usual temperature gradient in the atmosphere highlight the danger by holding the smoke in low clouds of fog near the source.
Residents who burn their garbage may think it is better to do it in the cold months because neighbors will have their windows closed. However, the pollution created by burning garbage has far more serious effects than smell. In recognition of this, the State of Michigan banned backyard burning of most household garbage in 2012. (For ban details, visit Michigan.gov and search for “Burning of Trash”.)
When modern trash is burned, cancer-causing and otherwise toxic compounds like lead, mercury, hydrocarbons, and hexachlorobenzene are released in the smoke. Even burning paper (which is about the only flammable material not included in the ban) releases dioxin, a carcinogen which is potent even at very low levels. And, of course, what goes up must come down. When these chemicals come down over farms, forests, and lakes they are consumed by livestock, wildlife, and fish and enter the food chain. Health effects of dioxin exposure include damage to the nervous system, kidneys or liver; respiratory illnesses; cancers, and reproductive or developmental disorders.
Most of the time, smoke is diluted too rapidly to be visible for long. An inversion prevents this. According to the National Weather Service, on most days, the temperature of air in the atmosphere is cooler and cooler as altitude increases. Temperature inversions form most frequently when air near the ground cools at night. Air warmed during the day which has risen away from the ground can act as a lid, holding in the cooler air below. This effect is stronger in winter. If that low cooler air contains smoke, the smoke is trapped. Seeing the fog or low clouds in the evening can be eerie. How much more disturbing would it be knowing that the fog carries poisons?
Fortunately, this extremely hazardous smoke is easily prevented: alternatives to burning garbage are now widely available in northern Michigan, including recycling systems, waste transfer stations where garbage can be dropped off, and waste hauling services. “Those still burning garbage can call us at 231-373-4275 for information on recycling and waste disposal services in their area,” said Elisa Seltzer, Director of the Emmet County Department of Public Works.