TURN YOUR BURN BARRELS into planters. A state regulation takes effect next week that extends the ban on burning household waste to all parts of the state, instead of just communities of more than 20,000 people. No word yet whether the new rule applies to torches carried by irate trash burners.
The new ban covers every town in Columbia County.
When the state first proposed the ban over a year ago, it offered two reasons:
* Burning garbage in the backyard releases dioxins, some of the most toxic chemicals produced by humans; the stuff is best remembered as the source of illnesses associated with the Vietnam War era defoliant Agent Orange
* Open burning is the single greatest cause of wildfires in this state.
The initial proposal drew a storm of protest because it was so broad that it would have prevented people from lighting campfires, barbecuing, properly disposing of flags, training firefighters and disposing of brush. Kind of made you wonder what the people who thought up this idea had been smoking.
But after a year of hearings and meetings, written comments and bureaucratic tweaking, the final regulation has created exemptions for all those activities listed above and for certain others too, including agricultural practices. So compliance with the new regulation gets down to whether folks who still burn their trash in rural communities like ours believe the state’s reasons for the ban outweigh the people’s evolutionary right to burn their trash rather than pay someone else to haul it away (or dispose of it themselves at a cost).
The state Department of Environmental Conservation says a study conducted by state agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about five years ago found that outdoor burning of plastics and other manmade materials is the largest single source of new dioxin pollution in the state. Dioxin and chemicals closely related to it are classified as substances that cause cancer in humans.
The DEC doesn’t estimate how many people die or are made ill by these chemicals because of burning household waste, nor does it estimate how many lives will be saved as the result of the new, broader ban. It can’t, because the science is still a work in process. But scientists do have ample evidence of dioxin’s connection to cancer and to other risks as well, particularly impaired fetal development. Fetuses appear to be especially vulnerable to these types of chemicals.
Let’s say you have a burn barrel, and you tell yourself: I don’t burn that much, and the little bit of pollution I put into the air can’t possibly hurt anybody but me. That’s a strong argument as long as you can say exactly where your pollution goes. But here’s another problem; it just a question of whether your neighbor is pregnant and gets a whiff of smoke from that old ketchup bottle you just burned. This type of pollution lands on the grass and the cows eat it and it gets in their milk, and people drink and eat dairy products made with that milk, and the chemicals linger in our bodies making their biological mischief.
It would be better if the government stayed out of the lives of its citizens, leaving it up to individuals to determine how to act responsibly. But people don’t always look out for the other guy. Think about smoking in offices: the dangers to non-smokers were known for years, but smokers imposed on others a product that causes cancer and heart disease. It took government regulations to make workplaces safer for everybody. Or what about sending text messages while driving a car… or a train? If we want our transportation systems to be reasonably safe, government has a duty to enforce a no-texting-while-driving standard, reminding drivers that they must attend to the road ahead rather than that little screen on their laps.
The data show that if you burn garbage you contribute to air pollution that threatens everybody’s health. You also risk igniting fires that could prove destructive, if not deadly. The DEC kept faith with the public in crafting this new burn-ban regulation, acknowledging that government must not abruptly restrict economically or culturally important practices for which there are no practical alternatives. In doing so it upheld the principle on which all effective government depends, that your freedom to behave as you choose ends at your neighbor’s doorstep.