The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) defines open burning as a fire whose smoke is not directed through a flue.[i] Examples include open barrels, campfires, or uncontained fires, such as bonfires. This type of burning occurs at both the residential and municipal level. Residential fires might be set for recreation or burning yard waste, while municipalities might conduct a controlled burn in order to abate a fire hazard, disease prevention or pest control, or to train firefighting personnel. Some waste management facilities may dispose of waste through open burning, though this practice is infrequent because of environmental hazards. Among all of these, open burning at the residential scale remains the most problematic because the emissions are released near homes and close to the ground. Strong regulations and enforcement on open burning are needed to minimize public health issues that arise from smoke inhalation.
The public health and environmental hazards of open burning are well documented but not widely known. “[A]n EPA report published in November 1997 shows that a single household burn barrel may emit as much toxic chemicals as a well-controlled municipal incinerator” (PA DEP). Open burning also poses a high risk of unintentional of the fire, which can cause damage to forests and nearby structures. Many Pennsylvania municipalities have placed restrictions on what, where, and when burning can occur to minimize risks and exposure.[ii] Unfortunately, these bans are often ignored by residents, and are poorly enforced.
Open trash burning is a particularly problematic. Many municipalities strictly ban burning household trash, even if other burning ordinences are minimal. These bans exist because of the extremely hazardous emmissions released, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and hexachlorobenzene.[iii] In spite of regulation, trash burning ordineces are often ignored and poorly enfoced.
Only a few Pennsylvania counties, including Philadelphia and Allegheny, have county-wide bans on most open burning. However, open burning is allowed in both areas under certain conditions if a permit is obtained.[iv] Other Pennsylvania counties and municipalities have a large degree of variability in their ordinances. Most rural municipalities are more lenient, only placing restrictions on time and weather conditions, while urban and suburban areas tend to be more restrictive due to houses being closer together.
Below is an example of a strong open burning regulation. This page also includes links and resources on open burning, how to get involved, and where complaints can be made around the state. There is also a spreadsheet containing an overview of all Pennsylvania municipalities open burning ordnances, including ordnance number or where they can be found.
[ii] The PA Recycling Act of 1988 prohibits the burning of recyclable materials in municipalities that are required to have a recycling program. This includes municipalities with a population of over 5,000 and population density of more than 300 people per square mile.
[iii] While some municipalities burn trash themselves, most trash burning is conducted in municipal incinerators that are monitored and regulated. These facilities produce far fewer emissions per weight of trash burned.