Most of the items that cause health problems for the chemically sensitive are synthetic products, often made from a complex mixture of petrochemicals. Because of that, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all synthetic products are harmful and all natural products are safe. That, however, is an oversimplification of the truth. Rattlesnake venom is natural, yet most understand it to be toxic. Many natural products that are generally helpful can be harmful in excess. It's even possible to die from drinking too much water.
Burning leaves are in a sense "natural." Sometimes a lightning strike will begin a fire. In general, however, fire is not the way God designed for leaves to change form. They are designed to simply decompose and return their nutrients to the earth without any special help from humankind. Burning piles and piles of leaves for week after week is neither natural nor wise. It can cause great distress for those of us with already-weakened bodies, and isn't healthy for anyone.
In a publication on residential leafburning, the Environmental Protection Agency has this to say:
- Burning leaves produce carbon monoxide. This enters the body, combines with red blood cells, and reduces the amount of oxygen that can be supplied to body tissues.
- Leaf burning produces hydrocarbons, some of which are irritants of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, and some of which are known to cause cancer. Leaves often produce high amounts of hydrocarbons because they tend to burn poorly due to moisture and insufficient air circulation.
- Smoke from burning leaves contains microscopic particles (particulate matter) that can reach the deepest part of the lungs. Breathing these particles can reduce the amount of air that can be inhaled and impair the lungs' ability to use the air available. It can also increase the risk of respiratory infection and asthma attacks. The particles can remain in the lungs for months or years.
Communities offer varying options for managing leaves. Some encourage homeowners to rake or blow them to the curb, where trucks vacuum them up to be turned into compost. Some municipalities pick up bagged leaves or allow them to be disposed of with household trash. Household composting of leaves is another option.
One of the easiest ways to manage leaves is to simply mow over them and leave them on the lawn. A mulching lawn mower works best, and will chop them more finely, but any mower will do the job. It’s best to mow frequently enough that the carpet of leaves doesn't become so deep that it blocks sunlight from reaching the grass below. .
If you're in the habit of burning leaves, I pray you'll consider other options. Fallen leaves can be a nuisance, but burning them creates more problems than it solves, and for some of us, the problems created can be literally life threatening. I urge you to find healthier ways to manage leaves, not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of those who share the air.