A burn pit is an area used for burning trash outdoors and allowing smoke and debris to disperse into the air. While burning materials such as wood and other plant matter may not pose a tremendous risk to the environment or to personnel working near the burn pit, many materials such as plastics and other synthetic compounds release harmful chemicals into the air when burned. In many cases, burn pits are set up as temporary waste management measures when long-term solutions are not available. Even if they are only used for short periods of time, such open-air methods of waste combustion can be quite dangerous to personnel and harmful to the environment.
In some cases, it may be necessary to use a burn pit for waste disposal when other methods of disposal are not available. Military forces at temporary bases distant from waste management services, for instance, may need to burn their trash. A burn pit may be particularly necessary for trash that, if simply stored, would attract insects, rats, or other potential carriers of disease. If other disposal options are not viable, burning piles of waste can pose less risk to human life than simply storing, burying, or otherwise disposing of the waste.
There are many measures that can be taken to reduce the health and environmental risks posed by the use of a burn pit. One can, for instance, try to burn only materials that pose a risk to human health when intact or those that pose little or no environmental or health risks when burned. Plastic items such as water bottles, on the other hand, can be compressed and stored for eventual recycling. Intact plastics tend to pose little risk to human health, but can release chemicals that are harmful to the environment and to human health when burned. Using fuels that burn at a higher temperature can also ensure that many of the most harmful chemicals are more completely broken down in the burn pit and are not released into the air.
Individuals who must work at or near a burn pit can also take some safety measures to protect themselves from potential long-term deleterious health effects. Safety equipment such as personal air purifiers can greatly reduce the potential health risks associated with working near a burn pit. Even simple face masks that cover the mouth and nose may be able to keep some of the worst byproducts of burning away from one's respiratory system.