Officials warn against leaf burning as method of yard waste management.

It doesn’t take a medical degree to understand inhaling smoke is harmful to one’s health.

State laws and regulations have cracked down on smoking tobacco in public, but other combustible acts can have serious consequences on public health.

While some homeowners may think of leaf burning as nothing more than a quick, effective method of lawn management, setting yard waste ablaze comes with serious health risks — even for those not holding the matches.

According to Kathy Drea, vice president of advocacy at the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest, inhaling smoke from burning leaf piles can deposit ash and other residue inside a person’s body, resulting in respiratory complications.

Studies from the Environmental Health Center and the American Thoracic Society — the medical branch of the American Lung Association — have discovered pollutants, organic aldehydes, ketones and particle matter. These toxins have resulted in an increase of acute respiratory illness, according to the American Lung Association.

“The particles from leaf burning are very, very small,” Drea said. “They can get deep down into your lungs and you might get pneumonia as long as four months later, and you don’t make that association of that’s what caused it.”

Furthermore, the American Lung Association also said burning leaves produces 130 pounds of carbon monoxide, 11 pounds of hydrocarbons and 20 pounds of particulate matter for every ton of burnt leaves.

“Obviously, it’s not good for anybody, and it can cause problems like pneumonia in anybody,” Drea said. “You don’t have to have asthma for it to do that.”

For those with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma or emphysema, Drea said the results can be much more serious — and in some extreme cases, fatal.

“Anyone who has any kind of breathing issues like asthma, (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema, or even if you have any kind of heart issues, the smoke from leaf burning can be very dangerous,” Drea said. “... It can send someone with asthma into an asthma (attack); they have difficulty breathing. It can cause heart attacks. Same with someone with emphysema or COPD; they could have difficulty breathing. During the fall, we hear of emergency room visits increasing due to leaf burning fires.”

Drea said smoke inhalation can also be especially dangerous for children, elderly adults and anyone breathing heavily outdoors, such as joggers.

Because residents cannot control where their smoke spreads or who it affects, Drea said, there’s no easy way to take precautions, as smoke can even blow into neighboring doors and windows.

Drea said the focus is then turned to municipal governments to pass regulations against open burning.

“We always recommend that city councils or county boards have a law to prohibit leaf burning,” Drea said. “That’s the only way really to make sure the air is clean enough for everyone to breathe.”

Most large cities throughout Illinois have long-standing laws in place that prohibit leaf burning, Drea said. Smaller cities are still arguing the matter.

“More and more cities are definitely passing them, and I don’t get as many complaints as I used to when I started here 20 years ago,” Drea said. “That was a huge part of my job, but over the years, it’s become less and less.”

To Drea, the ban on leaf burning reflects the state’s tobacco ban, although the tobacco industry’s viewpoint is slightly easier to understand than anyone burning leaves.

“I mostly work with tobacco issues, and I completely understand my opposition when I’m working with tobacco because they’re in it for the money,” Drea said. “But I’ve never really understood the opposition with leaf burning. It’s hard to understand how someone could just deliberately make the air unbreathable for our children and elderly.”

Others don’t quite see it that way, she said.

“It’s an interesting topic for a city council to take up,” Drea said. “Sometimes, we hear things like, ‘This has been the most controversial issue the city council has ever taken up,’ but then once they pass it, they see how nice it is, and people adapt to it very quickly, particularly if the city does offer some kind of leaf pick-up or something like that.”