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Backyard burning is a major source of toxic air pollution in Ontario

Wednesday, October 31st 2007 12:14:37pm

To the Editor:

Here is the next bi-monthly column (November 1, 2007) by Environmental Law Specialist Dianne Saxe. These columns are available for publishing at no charge, provided Dr. Saxe is cited as the author. She can be contacted at 416-962-5882 or For more information, see

For previous columns or to suggest topics which you would like Dr. Saxe to address, contact Brent Kulba at 416-972-7401.

Backyard burning is a major source of toxic air pollution in Ontario

Dianne Saxe, PhD in Law
Environmental Law Specialist

Burning waste, such as plastic containers, junk mail, painted lumber and other construction debris, is sometimes seen as a convenient way to avoid trips to the landfill, and many have practiced it for generations. But it’s a serious threat to air quality, especially for those in the immediate vicinity, and even for those who are miles away.

For example, we now know that ‘backyard’ waste burning is Ontario’s largest source of cancer-causing dioxin emissions. Most prevalent in rural areas, Environment Canada reports that 24% of residents burn garbage in open pits, woodstoves, burn barrels and fireplaces, with 76% burning once a week, releasing many thousands more dioxins than the same amount of garbage burned in a properly controlled waste incinerator.

Plastics, some kinds of treated paper, rubber and painted wood are the biggest culprits. Even carefully sorted, paper-only waste can contain plastics. Envelope windows are usually plastic, as are some inserts in junk mail, and paper packaging often has plastic coatings.

The dioxins, other pollutants, soot and fine particles released into the air through burning can be transported long distances, making them a problem both locally (near emission sources) and globally.

These pollutants are linked to many health concerns, including cancer, disruption of endocrine function, developmental problems, endometriosis, cardiovascular disease, asthma and diabetes. Backyard burning also causes fire hazards, bad odours, reduced visibility and the toxic ashes can contaminate wells.

Under the Ontario Fire Code, backyard burning is not permitted unless approved in advance by the fire department. There is an exception for a small, confined fire supervised at all times, which is used to cook food on a grill or a barbecue. Smoke and fumes from bigger fires could also contravene the Ontario Environmental Protection Act.

Additionally, your municipality may have a by-law that controls backyard burns, including the times during which they may be set.

The City of Vaughan, for example, does not permit open-air fires between sunset and sunrise. Fires must be at least 60 meters from any building, structure, hedge, fence, roadway or overhead wiring and at least 15 meters from any property line.

Cornwall’s by-law even advocates being a good neighbour by not interfering with your neighbours’ ability to enjoy their properties, as required under the Environmental Protection Act.

Persons violating the Ontario Fire Code can be prosecuted, and conviction can result in a fine of up to $25,000 for an individual. The latest data from the Office of Fire Marshal shows that fire departments across Ontario received 9,228 calls for unauthorized burning in 2005, up from 7,738 the previous year.

Contravention of the municipal by-law can result in additional fines and a bill for the full cost of recovery measures, including the cost of Fire department vehicles, equipment and staff. Environmental Protection Act fines can be higher still.

There are many good reasons to avoid backyard garbage burning, for the benefit of the environment, health, and good relations with neighbours. And there are good alternatives to burning, such as seeking out local recycling options for recyclable waste; composting organic waste such as food scraps, leaves, and grass; using the nearest garbage landfill or depot for remaining waste; and, of course, reducing waste altogether by purchasing items with less packaging.

Dianne Saxe, one of Canada's leading environmental lawyers, is a Certified Specialist in Environmental Law and member of the Ontario Bar Association Environmental Section Executive. She also holds one of Canada's only Doctorates of Jurisprudence (PhD) in environmental law.


For previous columns or to suggest topics which you would like Dr. Saxe to address, contact Brent Kulba at 416-972-7401.

Other columns by Dr. Saxe available for reproduction include:

•Who is responsible for fixing lead-contaminated drinking water?
•A little peace and quiet in Ontario municipalities with noise bylaws
•Contaminated soil from home heating fuel oil could result in costly clean-ups for homebuyers
•Reducing local air pollution in Ontario
•Trimming trees for safety
•Ontario communities have the right to ban cosmetic pesticide use
•Reducing the impact of vehicle idling in front of schools
•Ending clothesline bans in Ontario will help save energy and money

Click for high-resolution photo.