The use of burn barrels in rural Illinois has officials concerned about the possible side effects of the smoke.

In rural communities and some municipalities black, stinking smoke issuing from a rusted burn barrel is a common site and smell.

Could there be a connection to illness?

Egyptian Public and Mental Health Department Solid Waste Coordinator Danny January has been scratching his head over the issue and while he won't say burning trash is causing cancer, the evidence is compelling.

Tests have shown a single burn barrel produces the same amount of dioxins and furans -- chemicals known to cause cancer -- as a 200-ton per day industrial incinerator, January said. Saline County's West End Landfill handles 100 tons of waste each day, he said.

"People have burned trash in Illinois for generations, but trash has changed," January said.

Burn barrels were the preferred method for disposing of household waste. Those were the days when meat came wrapped in white paper, milk came in wax-coated cardboard containers, condiments came in glass bottles and food came in cans. Diapers were cloth and reusable.

Those days are long gone. Almost everything we buy comes wrapped in plastic or in a plastic bottle and diapers are plastic. Burning these items in a trash barrel at a low temperature releases the toxic chemicals.

"Chlorine in the plastic is the major culprit," January said.

Burning trash and household waste in a municipality of 1,000 people or more or
within a mile of such a municipality has been illegal in the state since 1971. In
areas outside of town food waste and packaging -- including pizza boxes and cereal boxes -- diapers, construction waste, roofing material or other items that produce air pollution cannot be legally burned.

"Basically, newspapers or cardboard (are all that may be burned). Anything involved
with food or food preparation is considered garbage by the state and is illegal to
burn," January said.

Also, no business -- except for farming with the burning of piles of cornstalks -- may burn to dispose of waste anywhere in the state.

However, controlling illegal burning is difficult. January said in Shawneetown, which has a population of over 1,000, burning of garbage is common.

Omaha Mayor Jim Doyle, in a village of under 1,000, has been trying to get citizens to vote in an ordinance prohibiting burning, but the referendum was voted down.

The agency in charge of monitoring and enforcing burning is the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Bureau of Air, which January said consists of one man in Marion whose workload consists of monitoring power plants and industrial smoke stacks.

January is hoping to raise awareness and encourage those who can to hire a trash hauler to take plastic refuse to the local landfill. He knows there are some areas too rural for trash service where people are going to continue burning.

"If they burn, do it at the edge of the property where it won't go over where the kids are playing or where the garden is or over the pond where they eat the fish," January said.

Brian DeNeal can be reached at