By Dave Cooper
When students from Park University in Kansas City, Mo. came to Harlan County, Ky. on an alternative fall break, they wanted to learn more about health problems in the region and find ways to help Appalachians live happier, healthier lives.
On a trip to fill water bottles with some pure mountain spring water, they photographed a trailer with a huge pile of smoldering truck tires in the front yard. Later they noticed the remnants of tires in the campfire rings around Cranks Creek Lake, a popular camping and fishing spot.
Returning to Harlan, the students began researching the issue of illegal burning. They learned that burning tires and plastics can release toxic chemicals including dioxin into the air, contaminating the soil and water and contributing to childhood asthma attacks.
The students quickly created an informational flier about the health dangers of burning tires, posting them on community bulletin boards. Later, they returned to Cranks Creek Lake and posted large signs alerting campers to the dangers of burning tires.
Many homes in rural Kentucky have a burn pile or burn barrel in the back yard, and tires are just one part of the problem. Decades ago, trash was mostly paper products, but today it is primarily plastics.
While weatherizing a home in the Closplint area of Harlan County, the students saw a backyard burn pile that contained a half-burned roll of carpeting, a television and a plastic kiddie car, plus many bags of trash and soda bottles. In the hollows, the black smoke from a smoldering backyard trash fire can linger over the community, contaminating the air for days.
In Kentucky, it is illegal to burn plastics, construction debris, plywood, treated wood, painted wood, animal bedding and tires, and to do so can result in fines of up to $25,000. Yet during their week in Harlan County, Park students counted dozens of backyard fires releasing thick, toxic smoke.
Talking to people in Harlan, Park students learned that tires are considered an easy way to light a fire: they burn all night long, providing light and heat for campers and night fishermen. One old timer claimed that burning tires kept the mosquitos away. But many Kentuckians that they talked with seemed completely unaware of the health dangers.
The Kentucky Division of Air Quality has provided posters and pamphlets for future volunteers to distribute. The posters show a resident cooking hotdogs and marshmallows over a campfire that contains plastic bags and soda bottles, with a tagline that reads, “If you burn trash in your campfire, you could be eating poison. Burning trash emits toxic gases and heavy metals like lead and mercury.”
For more information, contact the Kentucky Division of Air Quality at 1-888-BURN-LAW or visit air.ky.gov/Pages/OpenBurning.aspx