Outdoor Residential Waste Burning -- Background

This page last reviewed December 13, 2013.

What is residential waste burning?

Residential waste burning, for the purposes of the Airborne Toxic Control Measure (ATCM), is defined as the outdoor burning of wastes, other than natural vegetation, generated by a single or two family residence.  Individual air pollution control district and air quality management district (local air district) rules address the types of residential waste that are allowed to be burned.  Typically, these materials could include garbage, paper, cloth, and wood wastes burned in 55-gallon drums referred to as burn barrels.  Local air district rules vary throughout the State.  Prior to 2003, nine of the local air districts restricted outdoor burning at residences to natural vegetation only, and then, only under certain conditions. The remaining air districts allowed residential waste burning of materials other than natural vegetation.  Six air districts allowed the burning of all types of materials, including household garbage, in all or part of the air district.  The remaining 20 air districts did not allow the burning of household garbage, but allowed the burning of other materials such as paper, cardboard, cloth, and wood products in all or part of the air district.  About 2.2 million people live in areas where the 26 air districts allowed some form of residential waste burning.

Why is ARB focusing on residential waste burning?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) has identified residential waste burning as a major source of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (collectively referred to as dioxins).  Dioxins in particular are the most potent carcinogens identified to date by the ARB as toxic air contaminants.  In addition to dioxins, many other toxic air contaminants are generated from residential waste burning, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), benzene, and 1,3-butadiene.  These toxic air contaminants may result in substantial health impacts, ranging from headaches, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and liver and kidney damage, to cancer.  Other air pollutants found in smoke produced from residential waste burning include carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and particulate matter.  Most of the particulate matter emitted from residential waste burning is small enough to be inhaled and can be especially harmful to people with existing respiratory illness, the aged, and the very young.  Exposure to such particles may worsen existing disease conditions and can produce symptoms ranging from breathing difficulties to increased respiratory infection and even death.

At its June 28, 2001 Board meeting, ARB directed staff to proceed with development of an ATCM for residential waste burning and report back to the Board in 2002, after several local air districts asked ARB to take the lead with a statewide measure.  At a public hearing on February 21, 2002, the Board approved an Airborne Toxic Control Measure to Reduce Emissions of Toxic Air Contaminants from Outdoor Residential Waste Burning.  Restricting the outdoor burning of non-vegetation waste to very low population density areas will decrease the overall emissions statewide and lessen the adverse impacts to community health from household waste burning, especially in densely populated incorporated places.

What does the ATCM do?

The ATCM is a statewide control measure to reduce air toxic emissions and protect community health.  Provisions to take effect on January 1, 2004, include:

(a) Eliminating outdoor residential burning of all household waste except vegetation;
(b) Eliminating the use of burn barrels because they facilitate the illegal burning of waste materials;
(c) Requiring all residential burning to take place on a day authorized for burning by an air district;
(d) Providing exemptions in areas with very low population density that lack alternatives for waste disposal.
The temporary exemption areas referenced above in (d) were approved by air district Governing Boards and confirmed by ARB in 2003.  Exemption area designation will be reevaluated every ten years.

What are the exemptions and how will they be applied?

Only one- and two-family residences in the specifically identified and approved exemption areas can utilize the exemptions. There are only two potential exemptions:

     1) permission to burn dry, non-glossy paper and cardboard, and/or
     2) limited use of a burn barrel or backyard incinerator.

The ATCM requires the exemption areas be limited to very rural areas throughout the State as determined by population density. ARB used data from the most recent U.S. decennial census (currently year 2000) to determine population density, or persons per square mile, in census zip code tabulation areas. No exemptions are allowed in incorporated places or areas where the population density is greater than 10 persons per square mile. The exemption areas follow easily recognizable boundaries, such as zip codes, and can be further refined by air districts using a suitable mapping unit, such as census blocks. 

Burn barrels may continue to be used in any jurisdiction where a local ordinance or other enforceable mechanism requiring their use is already in effect as of January 1, 2002, unless it is subsequently rescinded or revoked. Conversely, an air district may not seek an exemption for the use of burn barrels in any jurisdiction that bans their use through air district rules, local ordinances, or other enforceable mechanisms in effect on January 1, 2002, or thereafter. Air districts may not request exemptions for the burning of paper and cardboard if it is already prohibited under air district rules in effect as of January 1, 2002, nor request an exemption for any jurisdiction where a local ordinance or other enforceable mechanism is already in effect prohibiting these materials.

Air districts do not have to request exemption areas and many of them will be implementing the statewide ATCM by prohibiting burn barrels and incinerators and allowing only vegetation burning in piles on the ground at residences. A few air districts already prohibit some or all of these activities in heavily populated areas.

What authority does ARB have to regulate residential waste burning?

In 1983, the California Legislature established a two-step process (AB 1807) of risk identification and risk management to address the potential health effects from airborne toxic substances and to reduce their risks.  During the first step, ARB and Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) determine if a substance meets the definition of a toxic air contaminant, and to what extent.  If a substance is determined to be a toxic air contaminant, the ARB begins the process of risk management.  In this step, the ARB evaluates the need, feasibility, and cost of reducing emissions of a particular substance.  Please see the California Air Toxics Program for more information.  ARB identified benzene as a toxic air contaminant in 1984.  Dioxins were identified as toxic air contaminants by the ARB on July 25, 1986, and the OEHHA has concluded that dioxins are a potential human carcinogen with no identifiable threshold.  In 1992, ARB identified 1,3-butadiene as a toxic air contaminant.  PAHs and PCBs are considered hazardous air pollutants by the U.S. EPA and in 1993, ARB also identified them as toxic air contaminants.

For more information, please view our Fact Sheets.


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