Can You Burn Painted Wood?

By Woodworking Street •  Updated: 12/05/21 •  7 min read

It’s so much easier to burn that gigantic eye-sore of a woodpile that’s been sitting in the backyard, for what seems like a century, rather than pick it up and haul it down to the dump. Unfortunately, the dump may be the better option.

Some State and Local laws prohibit open burning of chemically treated wood as well as painted building materials. Painted wood can release toxic substances when burned. 

Burning painted wood releases a lot of harmful chemicals into the atmosphere and potentially into your lungs as well. Neither is going to work out well for you or for the atmosphere. 

It only gets worse depending on the age of the wood and what kind of paint was used. It will all burn but it doesn’t necessarily burn the same. Different paints release different toxins and if it’s really old paint, it can release some nasty stuff that you don’t want on your skin or in your lungs.

What Potential Toxins Does Burning Painted Wood Create?

Painted wood is usually very dry and paint makes it even more flammable. So when you throw a pile of painted wood in a fire, it will usually burn bright, hard, and fast, while leaving behind very little in the way of coals.

Aside from the brilliant briefness of burning painted wood, it has the potential to release a number of harmful toxins into the air around you. Anything that it settles on is contaminated. If it’s windy, it’s going to go a long way and take its toxicity along for the ride. 

Some of the possible contaminants in painted wood are:

Each of these has a ton of different, potential side effects. Some are immediate and some are a bit more delayed. Many of the toxins in the above list are considered to be cancer-causing. 

Lead-based paints stopped being a thing in the late 70s, but that doesn’t mean some of the old wood in your backyard doesn’t have some 1976 paint on them. The side effects of inhaling lead are numerous and not altogether comfortable. 

High blood pressure and joint pain are two of the most immediate effects felt in adults. You can also experience headaches, abdominal pain, and trouble with memory and concentration. 

It doesn’t end there. It can cause a miscarriage if you’re pregnant and for men, it can significantly lower sperm count while also mutating existing sperm.

VOCs And PCBs

VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds, which is just a way of saying that burning wood that has paint on it can release a conglomeration of volatile stuff that you don’t want in your system.

It’s essentially another term—in the context of burning paint—for “all of the above.”

PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) are similar to VOCs, except that they were primarily in paints from the 1920s until the 1970s. So if you’re burning older wood that has paint on them, PCBs are a distinct possibility.

Some of the harmful effects of PCBs are as follows:

As we move along in our nifty little article, you can really see why burning wood with paint on it is not that great of an idea, no matter how much time, money, and effort that it happens to save you. 

With the combination of VOCs, PCBs, and the various, negative effects from inhaling different metals and harmful byproducts, it’s a much safer choice to just haul that stuff off to the dump and never burn it in a fireplace, burn pile, or in a fire pit. 

It’s especially harmful to children as well, with all of the above causing a variety of physical, mental, and psychological ailments. 

Statue of man with a headache - Can you burn painted wood

What is Open Burning of Painted Wood?

As mentioned earlier, some State and Local laws prohibit open burning of painted wood. So, what do they mean by “open burning”? Does this include the burning of painted wood? I checked the rules in various locations:

Michigan

The State of Michigan defines “open burning” in this way:
“… the burning of unwanted materials such as paper, trees, brush, leaves, grass, and other debris where smoke and other emissions are released directly into the air. During open burning, air pollutants do not pass through a chimney or stack and/or combustion of solid waste is not adequately controlled…”

They also state:
“… Air quality and solid waste regulations prohibit open burning of construction and demolition waste. Chemically treated lumber, as well as synthetic and painted building materials, contain high concentrations of hazardous compounds that produce toxic emissions when burned …”

Source of information:
https://www.michigan.gov/documents/deq/deq-aqd-open-burning-brochure_273553_7.pdf)

I interpret this to mean that you cannot burn painted wood in Michigan, even if you have a permit to do open burning of allowed materials. Of course, you should really check with your State or Locality if there is any question about burning a particular material.

Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources states the following:
“… The DNR’s air quality and waste management rules prohibit burning of any of the following materials under any condition: … wood that has been painted, treated, laminated, or glued …”

Source of information:
https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/OpenBurning/BeforeYouBurn.html#govt)

So, it seems that they also prohibit open burning of painted wood. This makes sense, since toxins would be released, causing pollution.

Ohio

Ohio also has restrictions regarding open burning:
“…What open burning is never allowed? Under Ohio law, these materials may not be burned anywhere in the state at any time: … Materials containing rubber, grease, and asphalt or made from petroleum, such as tires, cars and auto parts, plastics or plastic-coated wire …”

source of information:
https://epa.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/epa/divisions-and-offices/air-pollution-control/permitting/open-burning

This does not seem to specifically state that painted wood is prohibited. However, my interpretation is that it is, since burning it would release many of the same toxins as the other materials on the list. Again, you need to check with the State or Locality if there is a question about this.

Final Word

Dump truck at landfill

There are far more negative things that can happen from burning painted wood than anything positive. 

Sure, it may save you some serious time and money because you don’t have to haul it off, in exchange for potentially $1,000s in medical bills.

Painted wood may be enticing to burn but think twice before you do. Burning painted wood can lead to serious health problems ranging from chest pain to cancer. It’s best to stay safe and use alternatives like firewood or other types of fuel instead of painted wood.

 Also, never put your children in danger, so for your own safety and their safety, make sure that you follow all safety precautions when you burn wood.

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Woodworking Street

I've had an interest in woodworking and building things since I was a child. With a good plan, the right tools, and a bit of know-how it's possible to build anything. That's what this website is all about. The internet can be an intimidating place for someone new to woodworking. My goal is to provide you with great resources and information to help you get started.

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