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Campfires–where the camping life collects

Posted by on November 5, 2012

Campfires –



Campfires are a great way to bond with your fellow campers and paddling companions after a day of paddling. They provide a wonderful warm glow and as the day’s physical and emotional highs and lows sink in, a way they can be relived. They provide warmth on a cool night and enough smoke to help in keeping bugs away. They allow us to cook and warm our toes. They shouldn’t however be a source of health concerns but recently I have seen a troubling amount of trash being put into the common fire pits. In study after study alarming amounts of harmful fumes can come from trash being burned in campfires. One of the ideas behind this club is to good environmental stewardship.

Many people that are involved in camping are not always aware of the issues. Clark Green that runs a blog for Scout leaders recently posted, “I must confess to burning plastic and trash in a campfire over the objections of one of the other adults camping with me. Our crew was midway through an extended canoe trip and I burned a big bag of trash after the Scouts were in their tents for the night. My fellow leader explained that this was dangerously toxic and I was a bit put out. I mean, really, how could this be that bad?

Well Mr. Clark is not alone in not getting it. After I saw my fellow campers at Caddo putting in very questionable items I felt compelled to add these thoughts for your consideration. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it at the time, however, I feel I must say something here.

Studies have shown that not only is it highly likely that trash burning is prohibited in the locals that we visit, it is also opposed to leave no trace. Many of the objects being thrown into the fire would produce highly toxic smoke and leaves toxic residue behind in the fire pit.

“Smoke—Many hazardous air pollutants and toxic metals are known to be human carcinogens that may increase the incidence of cancer. Air pollutants may have other effects on human health that are more difficult to measure, such as immunological, neurological, reproductive, developmental, mutagenic, or respiratory effects.

The hazardous air pollutants we measured in campfire smoke that are known to adversely affect human health were: acrolein (2-propenal), acetaldehyde, benzene, furan, naphthalene, styrene, toluene, and xylene. We did not analyze the smoke for toxic metals.

Benzene, naphthalene, styrene, toluene, and xylene are aromatic hydrocarbons, which are suspected carcinogens. Aromatic hydrocarbons also are severe eye, nose, and throat irritants. These compounds occur in petroleum products and automobile exhaust. They also are found in dyes and are used to produce a number of organic compounds. Benzene is a major component in tobacco smoke. Naphthalene is an ingredient in mothballs. Toluene and xylene occur in petroleum products and in dyes. Styrene is primarily used in the production of polystyrene plastics and resins.

Acrolein and acetaldehyde are aldehydes. Aldehydes are used for making dyes, resins, and plastics. Acrolein is toxic to aquatic organisms and acetaldehyde has been proven to cause cancer in animals. Studies have not proven whether these compounds cause cancer in humans.

Furan is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of extremely hazardous substances. Furan is released into the air during incomplete combustion. It emits acrid smoke and irritating fumes.” from the study  on US Forest Service.

Many states throughout the US have posted information about why burning your trash in a campfire is a bad idea.

Many of these things stay as residual lumps in the fire pit for the next user. We all have a responsibility for each other and the areas we visit. Plastics are a big No No, as are all Styrofoam containers. Aluminum cans do not burn up and can easily be recycled. Let’s make sure we treat each other right and respect the environment.

The simple conclusion that we can easily get from the study is don’t burn your trash, pack it in pack it out.

Eric Neilsen

Canoe Adventures



Other reading and sources :

Technology & Development Program

United States Department of Agriculture, US Forest Service

What’s Burning in Your Campfire? Garbage In, Toxics Out

Mary Ann Davies, Project Leader

September 2004

2300 0423–2327–MTDC




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