Grand Challenges of Controlling Dioxin Emissions from Residential Waste Burning

Open Access
Nalevanko, Nathan Ross
Area of Honors:
Engineering Science
Bachelor of Science
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Brian Dempsey, Thesis Supervisor
  • Wendy Pearson, Thesis Supervisor
  • Clifford Jesse Lissenden Iii, Honors Advisor
  • Judith A Todd, Faculty Reader
  • Dioxin
  • Backyard Burning
  • Open Burning
  • Municipal Waste
  • System Dynamics
  • Causal Loop Analysis
  • Environmental Engineering
Dioxin is a persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic family of compounds that presents significant human health risks through direct exposure and diet. The largest continuing source of dioxin to the environment in the United States according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) is open burning of residential waste, commonly in backyard-burn barrels. Although regulation has proven successful in mitigating dioxin emissions from industry, there is little known about human exposure to dioxin emissions from open burning. Residential waste burning is primarily regulated through local government, but enforcement is deficient, especially in rural areas where the problem is greatest. Designing an effective strategy to minimize open burning presents several Grand Challenges. Employing principles of system dynamics, a modeling technique for complex socio-technical problems, can identify these challenges. A causal loop diagram of the backyard-burning problem was constructed to visualize the relationships found within the system’s variables. This model provides an initial tool for understanding the problem holistically, and can be developed to fully simulate potential solutions over time. Ongoing challenges for confronting backyard burning through policy were identified as: determining precise health risks of dioxin exposure, examining rural waste compositions, conducting further backyard burning surveys, and mapping dioxin levels in local and national food systems. Addressing these Grand Challenges in future research can provide the data needed to run full model simulations. Through these simulations, we can effectively evaluate policies to mitigate open waste burning, the most significant source of continuing dioxin emissions, thereby reducing dioxin’s associated environmental and human health effects. Although regulation-based policies have decreased known dioxin emissions, minimizing the production, use, and improper disposal of chlorinated materials is a more sustainable solution method.