Q: We've always heard that burning leaves is bad for the environment. Is that true?

A: After a good romp in a freshly raked pile of leaves, it may seem like a great idea to set them aflame and enjoy the familiar scent of autumn. But resist the temptation.

“Burning leaves causes air pollution, is a fire hazard, and can pose health hazards for some individuals,” says Rosie Lerner, a horticulturalist at Purdue University. When dry leaves burn, particles that can cause nose, throat, and eye irritation float into the air. These particles can also get into your lungs, where they make you cough, wheeze, and struggle to catch your breath. Wet leaves don’t burn as fast and are more likely to emit hydrocarbons — chemicals that contain cancer-causing compounds. Smoldering leaf bonfires can result in carbon monoxide emissions that, if inhaled, may reduce the amount of oxygen your blood cells can absorb. Children, elderly people, asthmatics, and those with chronic lung and heart disease are most vulnerable to the effects of burning leaves, but everyone can suffer.

As an alternative, try composting. Or even easier: When you mow, ride right over the leaves on your lawn. You can collect the shredded leaves and put them in your garden, where they will suppress weeds, retain moisture, and insulate the ground. Or just leave them where they are — they’ll decompose on their own.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

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