For many people, burning fallen leaves releases the smell of autumn. But it’s also releasing fine dust, soot and tiny particles that can lead to serious health consequences.

Your Health | 5 years ago

Is Burning Fallen Leaves Hurting Your Health?

For many people, burning fallen leaves releases the smell of autumn. But it’s also releasing fine dust, soot and tiny particles that can lead to serious health consequences.

Fall is the time for hot cider, corn mazes and making leaf piles in your backyard. But if you or your neighbors want to get rid of leaves by having a bonfire, you may want to think again.

Burning leaves can harm your health, especially in an enclosed area, and can cause asthma, bronchitis, itchy eyes, headaches and runny nose, and even life-threatening complications.

In addition to the burning itself, massive amounts of fine dust, soot and small particles are released into the air, potentially going deep into your lungs to produce chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing. Short- and long-term exposure to burning fallen leaves can even lead to an increased risk of asthma attacks, heart attacks and carbon monoxide poisoning. 

“People can have pretty extreme exacerbations of their asthma [after being exposed to burning leaves],” says Jaspal Singh, MD, MSH, a pulmonologist at Atrium Health. “Air pollution over a prolonged time can increase heart disease risk as well.”

Here’s what you need to know about the health risks of burning fallen leaves:

It can increase asthma-related symptoms. About one in six people have a type of asthma that’s triggered by burning leaves and the tiny particles that come with it, along with the fuel used to start the fire. You may start to cough and feel shortness of breath, chest congestion and chest tightness after inhaling the smoke from the fire.

Asthma-related symptoms are different from allergies. The fall months are prime time for allergies, so it’s crucial to know the difference between the two. “The hard part of allergies and asthma is that there’s a lot of overlap here,” says Dr. Singh. “Differentiation can be quite difficult, [but] allergies are more of an irritation and asthma is a threat to your health.”

Exposure can lead to heart attacks. Air pollution, especially the tiny particles from a pile of burning leaves, can increase your risk of heart disease. Inhaling these particles can potentially trigger a heart attack, plus cause or worsen heart or lung diseases in people already living with them. “In North and South Carolina, we have a lot of people with COPD or emphysema,” says Dr. Singh. “Those patients are particularly susceptible to the complications of smoke inhalation.”

Breathing in smoke can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is found in the smoke from burning leaves, and so is benzo(a)pyrene, a chemical byproduct that may also be a potential factor in lung cancer. Breathing in this smoke can cut the amount of oxygen in your lungs and blood, leading to short- or even long-term damage.

Worst-case scenarios? You could experience an asthma attack, heart attack or even carbon monoxide poisoning, which is odorless and potentially deadly in a contained area, as a result of exposure to burning fallen leaves. These three scenarios can lead to permanent damage or even death. “People have been known to die from massive exposures,” says Dr. Singh.

What you can do instead of burning leaves. Mulching can keep your lawn leaf-free, especially if you’re using a lawnmower with a mulching blade to break up fine leaf particles. If neighbors are burning leaves in your area, ask if they can all burn leaves on one day a month or week. You can even contact your local officials to support these leaf-burning days, so people most susceptible to the health risks of burning leaves can stay indoors.

Here’s to a fun, safe fall season!