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Dear Editor,

I am writing this letter from the LBJ pediatric ward, where my 7-year-old daughter has been admitted for the past 6 days with pneumonia. I cannot say if her illness is in anyway connected to the smoke that fills our home several times a week and even in the middle of the night, but even while here at the hospital, we cannot seem to get away from this problem.

Over the past 2 days, smoke from 4 fires from areas next to the hospital has enveloped the parking lot and pediatric ward area of the hospital. All this smoke was coming from burning yard waste (grass cuttings and leaves). During one of these times, I watched a father take his newborn child from the hospital exit by the pediatric ward to their car to go home. They walked out of the hospital door and into thick smoke that filled the parking lot. What was probably this newborns first breath of air outdoors, were two tiny lungfuls of smoke, instead of the clean, fresh air he or she has the right to.

Google “harmful effects of yard waste burning”, and you will find numerous articles explaining why burning yard waste is bad for your health.  Here is one example: “When household waste, like wood and yard waste (leaves) are burned, they produce smoke, which contains vapors and particulate matter (solid and liquid droplets suspended in the air). Air pollution from smoke can impact human health. People exposed to these air pollutants can experience eye and nose irritation, difficulty breathing, coughing and headaches. People with heart disease, asthma, emphysema or other respiratory diseases are especially sensitive to air pollutants. Other health problems aggravated by burning include lung infections, pneumonia, bronchiolitis and allergies.”

In the past, when the population on Tutuila was much smaller, burning our grass cuttings may have had little effect on our environment or the health of our community. Today when there are many more yards to keep clean, and our homes are much closer together, there seem to be piles of grass cuttings burning all over the island, every day. These fires often produce thick smoke for hours. The smoke spreads and covers large areas, causing our community and our children to breathe this harmful smoke.

I know we burn our grass cuttings because we want our yards to look clean, but rather than burning our yard waste, if we put our grass cuttings and leaves under our taro and banana plants or put them in an area of our plantation, they will help our plants to grow better and eventually decompose and return to the soil.

There are many who, once they become aware of the harm that smoke can have on our children, will willingly stop burning yard waste. Unfortunately, there are also those who feel that no one has the right to tell them what to do on their own property. The problem is smoke from burning grass does not stay on the burner’s property but spreads far and harms many others.

In the US, there are laws against smoking in public because of the harmful effects of secondhand smoke on others. In residential areas, there are also laws against the open burning of yard waste, because of the harmful effects of this smoke on the community.

In American Samoa, there is a regulation against open burning (24.0512). But this regulation allows agricultural burning. I have heard that this is why burning yard waste is allowed.

In my opinion, grass cuttings and leaves from around our homes should not be considered agricultural. If so, everyone who owns and cuts a lawn should be considered a farmer.

US Code of Federal Regulations 29 CFR Part 780.206 (c) does not seem to classify mowing of lawns as agriculture work either. If this is the case, burning of yard waste should not be considered agricultural burning and should not be allowed.

The next steps would be education and enforcement. If I am wrong, and American Samoa law considers yard waste to be agricultural, and condones its burning, will those whose responsibility it is to protect the health of our children please figure out a way to stop this harmful, almost daily exposure to burning yard waste smoke.

Thank you,

Ian Gurr