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Volume 14, Issue 46 ~ November 16 - November 22, 2006

Got an Environmental Question? Send it to: EARTH TALK, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or submit your question at: Or e-mail us at: [email protected].

From the Editors of E/The Environmental

Leave the Leaves

When autumn trees drop foliage, don’t burn; compost instead

Now that autumn is here the leaves are going to pile up in my yard again. Is it really that bad to burn them? Why is it illegal to burn leaves in so many places now?

—Jeffrey Edwards, Westport, Conn.

Burning fallen leaves used to be standard practice across North America, but most municipalities now ban or discourage the incendiary practice due to the air pollution it causes. The good news is that many towns and cities now offer curbside pickup of leaves and other yard waste, which they then turn into compost for park maintenance or for sale. There are other burn-free options, as well.

Because of the moisture that is usually trapped within leaves, they tend to burn slowly, thus generating large amounts of airborne particulates — fine bits of dust, soot and other solid materials. These particulates can reach deep into lung tissue and cause coughing, wheezing, chest pain, shortness of breath and sometimes long-term respiratory problems, according to Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources.

Leaf smoke may also contain hazardous chemicals such as carbon monoxide, which can bind with the hemoglobin in the bloodstream and reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood and lungs. Another noxious chemical commonly in leaf smoke is benzo(a)pyrene, which has been shown to cause cancer in animals and is believed to be a major factor in lung cancer caused by cigarette smoke. While leaf smoke can irritate the eyes, nose and throat of healthy adults, it can really wreak havoc on small children, the elderly and people with asthma or other lung or heart diseases.

Sporadic individual leaf fires usually don’t cause any major pollution, but multiple fires in one geographic area can cause concentrations of air pollutants that exceed federal air quality standards. Several leaf and yard waste fires burning simultaneously in a particular locale can, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cause air pollution rivaling that from factories, motor vehicles and lawn equipment.

Purdue University consumer horticulture specialist Rosie Lerner says that composting leaves is the most eco-friendly alternative to burning. Dry leaves alone will take a long time to break down, she says, but mixing in green plant materials, such as grass trimmings, will speed up the process. Sources of nitrogen, such as livestock manure or commercial fertilizer, will also help. “Mix the pile occasionally to keep a good supply of air in the compost,” she says, adding that a compost pile should be a minimum of three cubic feet and will generate soil conditioner within weeks or a few months, depending on conditions.

Another option is to shred leaves for use as mulch for your lawn or to help protect garden and landscape plants. Lerner suggests adding no more than a two-to-three-inch layer of leaves around actively growing plants, chopping or shredding the leaves first so they don’t mat down and prevent air from reaching roots.

As for using leaves as mulch for your lawn, it is just a simple matter of mowing right over the leaves with the lawnmower and leaving them there. As with leaves used for garden mulch, this will provide many benefits, including weed suppression, moisture conservation and moderation of soil temperature.

For more information:

• U.S. EPA Residential Leaf Burning Facts:

• Composting for Beginners:

Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at or e-mail [email protected]. Read past columns at:

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