My Neighbors Burn Their Trash in Their Indoor Fireplace. Is This Legal?

It’s such a stupid idea that we shouldn’t need a law specifically forbidding it. Unfortunately, we probably do.

Regarding your column “My Neighbor Doesn’t Have Trash Service. Isn’t That Illegal?” [WW, March 8]. My neighbors don’t have trash service either. Their preferred disposal method is burning their trash in their indoor fireplace. The fumes from their chimney often smell like burning plastic and other trash-based chemicals not good for my asthma. Is this legal? —Just Want to Breathe

State, county and municipal codes have no shortage of prohibitions against outdoor burning of trash, yard debris and other unwanted material, but the law has much less to say about burning the stuff indoors. Now, is this because lawmakers wanted to leave a clever loophole for your neighbor? No, it’s because disposing of refuse by burning it in your living room is such a stupid idea that we shouldn’t need a law specifically forbidding it.

Unfortunately, we probably do. There will always be people who will hear it’s illegal to sell meat from a hog you butchered at home and say, “No problem, I’ll do it in the car!” To be clear: In Oregon, burning trash is illegal whether you do it with an indoor wood stove, in an outdoor burn barrel, or over a Bunsen burner on your nightstand.

The irony, Breathe, is that as noxious as this habit is to you, it’s got to be even worse for your neighbors. Burning household trash releases heavy metals, dioxin and other chemicals that are not only toxic and carcinogenic, they don’t even get you high. The offenders are almost certainly getting a worse dose of this stuff than you.

But whatever, they’re not going to stop. So what can you do? As folks who live next to trap houses can tell you, the fact that something is illegal doesn’t always guarantee you can stop it with a quick phone call. Basically, you can file a pollution complaint with DEQ, you can report it to the city or county as a code violation, or you can try the cops by calling it in as a nuisance complaint.

I admit it’s hard to imagine any of these things doing much good. Some sources say burning cardboard and plastic increases the risk of chimney fires, so maybe if you’re very patient, eventually their house will burn down. In the meantime (you already know what I’m going to say), have another drink and forget about it.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.

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