ST. PAUL - In an effort to reduce what they call a significant risk to Minnesotans' health and environmental quality, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) commissioners have signed letters to local public health officials and solid waste administrators across the state.
A letter dated July 15, 2013, signed by MDH Commissioner Edward P. Ehlinger, M.D., and MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine, read that "garbage contains plastics and other synthetics that, when burned at low temperatures (such as in a burn barrel), release smoke containing harmful dioxins and particulate matter.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), backyard garbage burning is the largest source of dioxin emissions in the U.S. An average family of four that burns garbage in a barrel can create as much or more dioxin as a 200-ton per day municipal waste incinerator.
Dioxins are known to cause cancer and other harmful physiological effects in people, the letter continued. Dioxins from burning garbage can enter the human food chain when livestock eat contaminated feed and vegetation. Over time, dioxins can accumulate in our bodies through the consumption of meat, fish, and dairy products.
The letter added that as of July 15, 2013, 29 Minnesota counties have adopted "no-burn" resolutions. The counties have been reducing the number of households who burn garbage, but an estimated 228,000 households still burn garbage in rural Minnesota.
The letter stated a goal of all non-metro area counties adopting no-burn resolutions.
New Ulm water quality specialist Scott Sparlin said Northern Minnesota counties have been more proactive than many others in approving no-burn resolutions.
"I've seen highway signs north of Leech Lake that read "burning garbage is not only unhealthy, it's illegal," Sparlin said. "I suppose state officials are trying to get counties to do it instead of a state-wide (garbage burning) ban. Lots of garbage like plastic utensils and foam (food containers) is burned in camp fires. Plastic is a petroleum product. It's like burning oil."
South Central College agriculture instructor Wayne Schoper said most farmers he works with don't burn much and are cognizant of the environment.
"Most farmers have a garbage service and recycle," Schoper said. "But I think a garbage burning ban is OK and worth pursuing."
Residential garbage burning has been illegal in Minnesota since 1969. Even seemingly harmless items like paper, mail, packaging and cardboard boxes used for frozen pizza and vegetables can emit toxic emissions. Vegetative material like leaves, brush and untreated wood may be legally burned in Minnesota unless restricted by local ordinance.
The MPCA reported that Chisago County reduced the number of residents who use burn barrels by 40 percent in four years after passing a no-burn resolution plus hosting an education and incentive program called the Burn Barrel Buy-Back (4Bs) Campaign.
A joint effort with local haulers, the program offered six months of garbage service at half price to residents who turned in their old burn barrels and signed up for garbage service. Haulers collected residents' old burn barrels and ash and disposed of them at no charge.
The program, funded by an MPCA grant and included MPCA staff input, increased the number of customers for local haulers.
For more information, visit www.pca.state.mn.us/burnbarrel or call 1-800-657-3864.
Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org