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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Burning of dry fallen leaves

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Every autumn brings beautiful hue and colour to the skyline through annual metamorphosis of plants and trees visible in the form of new leaves. At the same time dry leaves fall to the ground and cover the entire floor.It is reported that about 30 million tonnes of dry leaves in America are dumped into landfills every year. Worldwide, these fallen leaves account for about 75 percent of the total solid waste on the earth.

Biologically, leaves act as solar cells since they receive sunlight and convert it into chemical potential energy that gets stored in the food prepared through the process of photosynthesis. The leaves that complete their life spawns and fall down dry on floor can be compared with tiny batteries containing significant quantum of energy. This energy can be harnessed to address the world’s ever increasing fuel demand. For this they can either be burnt directly or can be converted into ethanol to produce energy.

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Direct burning of dry leaves is regarded as harmful to the atmosphere since it contributes to the CO2 load of the atmosphere. Some researchers argue that leaves absorb CO2 during photosynthesis and reduce its load on the atmosphere on one time. On the second time when leaves are burnt the same carbon dioxide is put back into the atmosphere. Thus, burning of dry leaves does not contribute to the atmospheric load of the gas.
The above concept has been opposed at many places by many environmentalists across the world, and by the United Nations, and also by the Environmental Protection Agency, USA. These oppositions have emerged due to some crude realities mentioned ahead.

“Burning leaves may spark health problems. Because of the moisture that is usually trapped within leaves, they tend to burn slowly and thus generate large amounts of airborne particulates—fine bits of dust, soot and other solid materials. According to Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, these particulates can reach deep into lung tissue and cause coughing, wheezing, chest pain, shortness of breath and sometimes long-term respiratory problems.

Leaf smoke may also contain hazardous chemicals such as carbon monoxide, which can bind with hemoglobin in the bloodstream and reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood and lungs. Another noxious chemical commonly present in leaf smoke is benzo (a) pyrene, which has been shown to cause cancer in animals and is believed to be a major factor in lung cancer caused by cigarette smoke. And while breathing in leaf smoke can irritate the eyes, nose and throat of healthy adults, it can really wreak havoc on small children, the elderly and people with asthma or other lung or heart diseases.

Small Leaf Fires Can Cause Big Pollution Problems. Sporadic individual leaf fires usually don’t cause any major pollution, but multiple fires in one geographic area can cause concentrations of air pollutants that exceed federal air quality standards. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), several leaf and yard waste fires burning simultaneously in a particular locale can cause air pollution rivaling that from factories, motor vehicles and lawn equipment”

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Small  leaf fires can cause big pollution problems

Burning fallen leaves used to be standard practice across the globe, but most municipalities now ban or discourage the incendiary practice due to the air pollution it causes. In many Indian cities the Central Pollution Control Boards have taken up hard steps against burning of leaves in parks and roadsides. The good news is that many towns and cities across the globe now offer curbside pickup of leaves and other yard waste, which they then turn into compost for park maintenance or for sale commercially.

Collection and burning of dry leaves has been a traditional practice in rural Indian houses since long as mentioned on this site elsewhere. Rural ladies use to collect dead fallen leaves from the forest floor and store them in their houses as fuel. This fuel has surely been the cause of silent deaths of many rural ladies and still, as I think, since the age old practice has not been stopped, many cases of deaths due to pulmonary diseases including cancer are being observed in marginalized societies. 

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Collection of dry leaves from the forest floor by rural ladies

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Rural ladies carrying sacs of dry leaves to their houses to store as reserve fuel stock
Non Government Organizations and other bodies should come forward to generate awareness and to check the practice of burning of leaves in rural Indian households promoting the use of smokeless chullhas or efficient wood stoves.

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The Wood Stove

As for nature, it has the capacity of developing new leaves and once the old leaves have gone. But for man, it is not possible. Still the man goes on destroying everything. Here is a poem with a different message, and which is rather irrelevant to be quoted here, is still being presented for you to send your thoughts into a new world. The poem was composed after the World War II by Lawrence Binyon.Read it …

Burning of the Leaves
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into a weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

The last hollyhock's fallen tower is dust;
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before:
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there;
Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.
                                                           - Lawrence Binyon

Key Words : dry leaves, forest floor, carbon mono- oxide, Benzo- Pyrene, Pulmonary diseases, Lawrence Binyon

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