Local officials recently showed two minds on public air quality. While the Ovid Village Board made a move to ban outdoor heating devices in the village, the Town of Covert passed a resolution to oppose the State DEC ban on open burning. Are Ovid folks that much different from Covert folks? Not far away, Romulus officials are working on a permit system to regulate outdoor heating devices.
While most people understand the thinking behind the ban on heating devices, even with the cost of heating oil set to skyrocket this winter – the Board was anticipating this eventuality – it’s also true that many folks think it’s okay to burn garbage in their own back yard. One survey estimates that 25 – 50% of rural residents do backyard burning. It’s easy to see why: if you’re just burning paper or yard waste, what’s the difference between that and having a cookout fire? And then there’s the high price of trash. At three to five bucks a thirty-pound bag, not to mention pick-up fees, getting rid of your garbage is turning into a major household expense. In spite of recycling, it seems we have more garbage than ever, and a good deal of it comes via the mailbox. Small wonder that the easy way out involves chucking it in the burn barrel and stirring the weekly harvest of flyers, credit card offers, coupons, surveys, prayers-by-mail, duplicate billings, and so on.
The problem, according to NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, is that you can’t take the plastic out of the mail. All those mailer windows, plastic wrapped coupons, wax and plastic coatings, and plastic sample gift cards emit dioxin, one of the most carcinogenic substances known to humankind. If you can smell it, you’re breathing it. There is no safe level. If you’re burning it, and it drifts on the wind and settles in the woods, and six months later you eat a deer that grazed on those leaves, the dioxin the animal ingested passes right into you, where it stays. It doesn’t break down, which is why it is so carcinogenic.
Country and city folk generally share a stereotype of country folk as being healthier than city folk. There’s the outdoor lifestyle, farming, and, of course, breathing the fresh air. Unfortunately, the outdoor lifestyle for many rural residents includes a good hour or two of commuting to work, if not more. That’s just time spent on your butt in the car, and with just about everything out of walking distance, country folks may actually be exercising less than people who live in town. While farming still involves a great deal of hard manual labor, every farmer knows his job is at least fifty percent tractor, truck, and small engine mechanic. Fixing the baler for the third time in a week may not do much for your abs, but it sure is tiring; who wants to exercise after all that?
Added to that is the fact that the poorer and more out-of-the-way a rural district is, the more likely it will be targeted as a repository for some big city area’s wastes. Industrial-type farming operations locate far out of town because town dwellers are numerous enough, and able to organize enough, to chase them out of their own backyards. Polluted former industrial sites that would be cleaned up if they were close to, or in, a city, get left to fester because small town budgets either can’t foot the clean up or hire the lawyers to go after the responsible parties. According to the Journal of Rural Health, residence in rural areas is a risk factor for cancer; while national studies of cancer incidence find rural folks at slightly less risk for getting cancer it in the first place (when factors of race, age, and socioeconomic status are accounted for) when they do get it they’re more likely to die from it.
Therefore, even if your nearest neighbor is a mile away and nobody else could possibly be bothered by your burn barrel, you’re taking a risk with your own and your family’s health. Your risk of getting cancer (unless, of course, you’re poor, overweight, or elderly) might be lower, but your risk of it killing you is higher, so why stand there breathing dioxin? And if you’re harming no one but yourself, well, don’t harm yourself either.