Oh, the beauty of fall. The leaves turn vivid shades of orange, red and yellow. Unfortunately, the beauty loses its charm very fast and becomes the dilemma of what to do with all those leaves.
Open air leaf burning is one alternative. For most people, it’s easier and cheaper than mulching, bagging or composting. And, for some people, the smell of burning is very pleasing. To others, especially those suffering from respiratory ailments, it can be very aggravating.
Leaf burning holds at least two perils. One is the danger of the fire spreading out of control and becoming a hazard. Two, is the physically debilitating fumes given off by burning leaves. In addition, the burning pile can produce outdoor concentrations of smoke pollution – worse than the highest concentrations of smoke found around most highly polluted industrial locations.
Leaf burning typically occurs when the outdoor temperature is cold and is often conducted in densely populated areas. It generates uncontrolled pollutants at ground level under meteorological conditions that often are not favorable for good dispersion – again resulting in significant localized impacts.
Residential open burning generates:
* CARBON MONOXIDE
It reduces the delivery of oxygen to the body’s organs and tissues. This may cause serious repercussions for people who suffer from cardiovascular disease.
* NITROGEN OXIDE
This pollutant may cause increased respiratory illness in children. For asthmatics it can cause breathing difficulty. It can also irritate the lungs and lower resistance to respiratory infection. It is also a major pollutant that causes smog and acid rain.
* SULFUR DIOXIDE
This causes the acidification of lakes and streams, causes corrosion and visibility impairment and can produce foliar damage to trees and crops. High concentrations affect breathing and cause respiratory problems, alterations in the lung’s defenses and may aggravate existing cardiovascular problems.
* ORGANIC MATTER
Among these hydrocarbons are PAH and PHN. Both are naturally formed in tree leaves and have benzene related compounds in them These are released during burning. Among the PHNs is benzo(a)pyrene, a known carcinogen.
According to Dr. Bertram W. Carnow, M.D., of the University of Illinois, it is found in oak leaves in the same concentrations which exist in tobacco leaves.
Studies at the university suggest the presence of benzo (a) Pyrene relates directly to the incidence of lung cancer. As the leaves are dying in the fall and the chlorophyll containing parts of the plant become yellow, the amount of PHN increases three to five times.
Dr. Carnow states: “In addition to the particulate, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, a large amount of polycyclic matter is produced as a result of leaf burning. Also, there are many other compounds and materials released which have not been defined quantitatively including Aldehydes, Ketones, and other irritating organic compounds.
Further, while documentation is not complete, active compounds (free radicals), some thought to be highly carcinogenic, are also produced, again because the combustion process is incomplete.”
Health effects are the damage to biological tissue and cells. Hydrocarbons relate to the incidence of lung cancer.
Leaf burning also increases air pollution, reduces visibility and damages property. Dr. Carnow and many others recommend composting leaves as an alternative to burning. The practice can save money, create fertilizer and reduce pollution.
In about as much time as it takes to burn or bag yard debris for disposal, you can prepare the same materials for composting. Composting and mulching tree leaves eliminates noxious air pollution caused by burning.