Health Risks of Playa Fires

If you are going to burn your art, read about the environmental effects of burning on the playa, and how to lessen your impact when burning. Here we will describe the effect that burning on the playa can have on your health.

What toxins are produced when you burn?

What’s being burned? Everything, it seems. From building materials like PVC, rebar, and plastic to old couches and decorative objects. Many of these items can pose a serious environmental and health risk as they burn.

In order to get a good idea of the toxins produced when items like these are burned, we looked at the production of toxins from accidental construction fires and open burning of household wastes.

According to a study done by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, open household waste fires burn at low temperatures and can result in particulate emissions, heavy metal vapors, acid gases and other pollutants. Most are highly toxic and some can cause cancer.

Unlike incinerated waste, fire in a barrel or pile does not burn hot enough to destroy the poisonous substances released by burning materials. Since there are no safeguards to capture the toxins released in the smoke, they are released in a concentrated form at ground level where they are easily inhaled.

A study conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that each pound of garbage burned in a barrel emits 40 times more particulates than if that same pound of garbage was burned in a high-temperature incinerator with air pollution controls.

Another chief concern is the production of dioxin and furan. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals known to man; burning common household trash at low temperatures can form these compounds, both of which are carcinogenic. Benzopyrene is another potent carcinogen produced by low temperature fires. Open fire smoke contains 70 parts per million of carcinogenic benzopyrenes, about 350 times higher than cigarette smoke.

Studies of construction fires point to another major hazard of playa burning. PVC — the playa construction material of choice — is highly dangerous to both personal health and the environment when burned. PVC is one of the worst offenders when it comes to toxic substances. PVC can emit highly corrosive and toxic hydrogen chloride when burned. It is also is a source of dioxin and phosgene gas when burned at temperatures below complete combustion. Coincidentally, phosgene, an odorless gas that can damage the lungs, is one of the substances used in chemical warfare. Samples of soot taken from fires in PVC-containing buildings that have burned have been found to contain dioxins in very high concentrations. The soot, however, represents only a small part of the problem: more than 90 of the dioxins produced in a structural fire are found in the gaseous phase and escape into the atmosphere.

For these reasons, PVC should never be burned. Please make sure anything to be burned is PVC-free.

In reality, there are no materials that are safe to burn. Everything emits a wide range of toxins, some more directly lethal than others. Even plain, untreated wood contains over 100 different chemicals or compounds when burned. Some of these compounds are extremely poisonous and carcinogenic. Cancer of the skin in chimney sweeps was linked to soot as early as 1775.

How do you protect yourself?

Quite simply, keep small children away from burning piles. That goes for anyone with asthma or other breathing problems as well.