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Think again before burning leaves: harmful to your health and illegal

Posted October 15, 2014 in Web Exclusives

(Des Moines, IA) – Fall is in the air. Tree leaves are dropping and piling up. Most of us enjoy the fall aroma of burning leaves. However, before you decide to light that pile of leaves on fire, think again. Burning leaves is against the law in parts of Polk County and can be harmful to your health.

“Smoke from burning leaves contains harmful chemicals such as carbon monoxide and particulates that can be toxic,” said Rick Kozin, director of Polk County Health Department. “This can increase hospital visits for individuals who have respiratory illnesses or individuals with chronic allergies and asthma.

The smoke generated by burning leaves can also cause health problems.  Leaf smoke can irritate the eyes, nose and throat of healthy adults. It can be more harmful to small children, the elderly and people with lung or heart diseases.  The visible smoke from burning leaves is made up almost entirely of tiny particles that can reach deep into lung tissue and cause symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, chest pain and shortness of breath. These symptoms might not occur until several days after exposure to leaf smoke.

“There are several alternatives to leaf burning that are safe, legal and not harmful to your health,” said Jeremy Becker, Air Quality Manager of Polk County Public Works Department. “Individuals can mulch the leaves to put around shrubbery and garden plants, bag leaves for garbage collection or compost the leaves to use as a fertilizer and soil conditioner.”

It is unlawful for any person to open burn or permit open burning of any refuse, rubbish, landscape waste including leaves or other combustible material within the cities of Des Moines, West Des Moines, Clive, Windsor Heights, Urbandale and Pleasant Hill.

Individuals who live in unincorporated areas of Polk County should practice the following tips to prevent potential burning problems:

  • Allow the material several days of drying time for a more effective burn and reduce smoldering.
  • Watch for favorable weather conditions and safe wind speeds. Wind speeds of 5 to 15 mph, steady from desirable direction are preferred.
  • Be aware of drought like conditions and any bands on burning that may be in place.

For more information regarding leaf burning, please visit Polk County Air Quality’s web site at

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