GUEST BLOG: A burning issue or a drop in the bucket?

The following blog article was written for Airways, the Rockford Asthma Consortium’s newsletter by Sara Powell. She was kind enough to share it.

And While this represents one side of this issue, we welcome a guest counter-point. If you would like to present the other side of the issue, please write to so we can present the other point of view. -ES

Leaf burning: A burning issue or a drop in the bucket? When the issue is leaf burning, it’s both.

The problem with leaf burning is that although the fire may be confined to an individual’s property, the smoke cannot be.  The recent ruling—to allow burning only in areas more than one mile from some urban areas in Winnebago County—works only if the smoke can somehow be restricted to a certain area.  Of course, it can’t, which is why the ruling is little better than allowing open burning in all unincorporated areas.

Anything in the air that irritates the lungs is a danger for people with asthma.  Even though the pollution from burning leaves may seem like just a little thing, a little thing in the air can cause big problems in the lungs.

Imagine a bucket of water that is full to the brim.  In fact, it’s so full that it’s almost overflowing, but not quite: If you were to add just one drop of water to this bucket, it would overflow.  The important thing is that it wouldn’t overflow by just one drop; a lot more than just that one drop would spill.

Asthma symptoms can be compared to this imaginary bucket full of water. Suppose your lungs have already been exposed to a lot of things that irritate them (things that irritate your lungs are called “triggers”), and your lungs are on the brink of showing symptoms; your “symptom bucket” is brim-full, and just one more little thing will make it overflow.  In other words, one more trigger that your lungs have to deal with will make your lungs react to everything they’re dealing with–not just the one thing that was too much.

To put it another way, let’s say your triggers include cats, dust, and leaf smoke.  If you are exposed to just one of them, you might not have noticeable symptoms, or your symptoms might be minor.  If, however, you are exposed to cats and dust and then are exposed to smoke, you would react noticeably to all three triggers, not just the final one (the smoke).  If you hadn’t been exposed to that smoke, you might not have had noticeable symptoms at all.

No one really knows when and how much they will react to a trigger. If you haven’t been exposed to many triggers recently and are exposed to one, you might have symptoms or you might not; there’s no good way to know how full your “trigger bucket” (also called “trigger load”) is.  Another way to phrase this is that everyone’s “tolerance” for triggers is different; the same person’s tolerance will be different on different days and at different times, and there is no good way to measure that tolerance.

Medication does help reduce the severity of symptoms, and may even help you react less frequently than you do without medication; however, the best way to avoid having symptoms, and to keep up your normal life, is to avoid triggers whenever possible.  Since it’s not possible to avoid smoke when someone is burning leaves, that’s just one more trigger that people who have asthma will be exposed to and one more trigger that may cause symptoms in people.

A lot of the discussion about leaf burning concerned the lack of low-priced alternatives to burning.  The statement was made that there were no “reasonable” alternatives to burning.  However, there are no alternatives to breathing, at any price.

For information on how to contact your representative on the Winnebago County Board, go to,cpo/navi1.htm


Posted under health

This post was written by qni_it on October 20, 2011

5 Comments so far

  1. BillNole October 20, 2011 12:24 PM

    Respectfully, the comment that “there are no alternatives to breathing” while a very good point, still doesn’t address the question of what are people to do if you do ban burning? I’d actually prefer to put them at the curb to be picked up, but that option doesn’t exist for most people. Composting on site isn’t an option for many either and can lead to either fire hazards or mold issues, both of which are “no alternatives” as well.

    This issue goes well beyond just leaf burning however. What about wind born dust caused by plowing and harvesting? That too is a major irritant for those with less than healthy lungs, but surely nobody would suggest banning those practices, at least not without alternatives in place. What about fumes from vehicle traffic in congested areas or along highways? Should we shutdown traffic, since those fumes will travel on the wind into adjacent homes and buildings and cause difficulties for occupants?

    I propose that if you’ll focus equally on solutions for the problems caused by your solution, then you’ll likely get more support from a broader base.

    Best of luck in resolving the issues faced by those you’re trying to help! I’m not unsympathetic to their problems and I wouldn’t fight a ban, other than to request that alternatives be made available…

  2. WI Wx Buff October 21, 2011 10:28 AM

    Bill — I mulch them up with my lawnmower and throw them right back down (well mulched) on the lawn. I know that this can supposedly be problematic with some kinds of trees. But I’ve never had a problem with the Oaks and Maples on my property. I mean, think about it. Mother Nature made it such that leaves fall onto the ground and out of that good soil grow new young plants. It can’t be all that bad for them.

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