Bernie the Burn Barrel – Clearing the Air

If you’re burning garbage, you’re making poison!

“We’ve always burned our garbage!  Why stop now?”

“I heard the landfills are filling up, so burning makes less waste!”

“It’s just paper. That can’t hurt anything.”

These are common misconceptions in rural areas around the Great Lakes states. Many residents have been burning their garbage for years, never considering that their actions could have serious consequences.

Burning garbage such as packaging, plastic, food scraps or even newspapers and junk mail releases many pollutants including dioxins. These toxic chemicals settle on our fields, woods, water and soils. As a result, these substances accumulate in the foods we eat and eventually end up in our bodies. These toxins can cause serious health concerns, including cancer.

What is released?

Carcinogens and Heavy Metals

Many toxic chemicals are released when garbage is burned. These substances can
include toxins like arsenic, styrene, barium, mercury, chromium, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, lead and nitrogen and sulfur oxides. Some of the most dangerous chemicals released are dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, chemicals that are produced when materials containing chlorine are burned. These materials are quite common: traces of salt, bleached paper, plastics and even wood can produce dioxin when burned.

The Dioxin Danger

Dioxin is a potent human carcinogen that can have significant impacts on human development, immune systems and reproductive systems. Dioxin exposure is especially harmful for children, pregnant women and the elderly. In February 1997, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified dioxin (TCDD) as a “known” human carcinogen and the Department of Health and Human Services proposed the same in 1999. The U.S. EPA has classified dioxins as “likely” human carcinogens. Dioxin is also an endocrine disrupter (a chemical that interferes with the function of the endocrine system) and can cause reproductive, developmental and immunological problems in humans and animals. The endocrine system consists of glands and the hormones they produce that guide development, growth, reproduction and behavior. According to the World Health Organization, 90-percent of human dioxin exposure comes not through breathing smoke, but from the food supply. Dioxin contaminants fall onto pasture lands and other animal food, where they are consumed and concentrated in the body of animals like cows, chickens, pigs and fish. When meat or dairy products are eaten, the dioxin enters and remains in our bodies. This is called bioaccumulation. Nearly all humans carry some dioxin in their bodies. Women can pass dioxin to their babies during breastfeeding. An additional problem with residential garbage burning is not just the amount of emissions but the fact that it generally occurs in agricultural areas where the dioxin can readily contaminate fodder and animal grazing lands.

Other Health Concerns

Other concerns related to burning garbage are the smoke, smells and sooty particles produced when waste is burned. This hazard affects those near the burning waste, such as children and the elderly who may live in the neighborhood. Particulate matter (soot and tiny ashes) from the fire can contribute to eye and throat irritation,
asthma and breathing problems especially among sensitive individuals. Ashes from burning waste can contain
elevated levels of lead, arsenic, mercury and chromium. Disposal in gardens or by burying can lead to food or surface water contamination.

Fire Dangers

The Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources both estimate that 40-percent of the wildfires started each year are caused by debris burning. In early 2005, a home in Minnesota was destroyed and a man
seriously burned when embers from a burn barrel were blown and reignited by the wind. The fire hazard exists while a burn barrel is burning and as long as the ashes continue to smolder. Even a small pile of ash can contain smoldering embers that can start a wildfire days later.

Burning garbage affects your health and the environment more than you know. This dangerous practice affects everyone, not just those who burn.  Dispose of your trash the safe way- recycle and use garbage services.

Remember, it’s better not to burn!


Bernie’s on the Road!
The Lake Superior Binational Forum has a Bernie the Burn Barrel available for free loan. The traveling display includes a three-foot tall Bernie Character that “burns” with an electric flame and includes a button that users can push to hear him “talk” about the dangers of open burning.We also include posters and handouts for your users to take. All you need to provide is a Velcro ™ back drop.Please contact us at binationalforum@northland.eduif you’d like to borrow this free display for your library, business lobby, conference center, school, festival, event, or other venue.This display was developed through a grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Printables for your use!

 Bernie the Burn Barrel Tri-fold Brochure Bernie the Burn Barrel Bookmark Bernie the Burn Barrel Factsheet
Bernie the Burn Barrel Poster


Other Resources
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, Duluth, Minnesota
Air Defenders
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Canadian Centre for Pollution Prevention