BBQ Smoke: Is it Bad for Your Health?

There is no denying our country’s passion for grilling. For many people, the smell of a charcoal grill is powerful enough to conjure up a slideshow of happy summer memories made with the people they love. In some regions, grilling competitions are attended with the same enthusiasm as sporting events. Long, sunny days seem to be made for hosting barbecues with your friends and family. However, you may be exposing yourself to more than just good food and great company. Though smoky emissions from barbecues are easy to see, many people have never stopped to think about the impact that grilling fumes can have on their health.

Does your outdoor cooking method affect emissions?

No one wants to start digging into the potential health hazards associated with outdoor barbecues. However, the reality is that harmful barbecue fumes can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, and consumed through grilled foods (Wu, et. al, 2015). Different grilling methods may cause emissions in different ways, but none are completely free from fumes.

  • Barbecuing—When you barbecue with a closed grill hood, it can lead to hotter temperatures and the creation of more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that release into the air and can stick to the food. The closed hood traps the smoke created from the barbecue, allowing more of it to be absorbed by the food on the grill.
  • Grilling—Grilling with an open hood allows the smoke to dissipate quickly, meaning that the food may absorb less VOCs. However, grilling may have a more significant impact on outdoor air quality due to the spread of barbecue smoke.
  • Smoking—Smokers use indirect heat to cook meat, fish and poultry while infusing the food with a smoky flavor. Prolonged exposure to smoke may increase a food’s VOC absorption, similar to barbecuing with a closed hood. Temperatures inside the smoker should be kept between 225°F and 300°F to ensure that the meat remains a safe temperature while it cooks, according to the CDC.

Note: Some indoor cooking methods may pose just as many health effects as grilling, as we discovered in a previous post, “Why Your Kitchen Air May Be Surprisingly Hazardous.”

What is barbecue smoke, and how does it impact air quality?

Smoke is a byproduct of the chemical reaction between oxygen and a fuel source such as propane, charcoal or wood. In addition to smoke, this chemical reaction also creates the heat that cooks the meat, fish, poultry and vegetables that you grill. Barbecue smoke contains many components that can have harmful health effects, according to the CDC, including:

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs)— A variety of carbon-based chemicals that exist as gases at room temperature, VOCs and SVOCs have been found to cause adverse health effects, including respiratory irritation, allergies and asthma, neurological and liver toxicity, and cancer, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—One of the main SVOCs found in barbecue smoke and grilled meats, PAHs are formed through the combustion of coal, wood, oil and gas. They can also be created when fat and juices from meat drip onto the fire during grilling. Though the majority of barbecue-related PAH exposure comes from ingesting grilled food, PAHs can also be inhaled and absorbed through your skin. Exposure to PAHs can cause blood and liver abnormalities, as well as some forms of cancer, according to the EPA. Additionally, research studies have found that PAH exposure may negatively affect lung function (Cakmak, et. al, 2017) and even cause lung cancer (Armstrong, et.al, 2004).

Particulate matter (PM)—Solid particles and liquid droplets found in smoke are known as PM. Some PM is large enough to be seen with the naked eye, but much of the PM found in smoke is microscopic. When inhaled, PM can enter your lungs and bloodstream and cause adverse health effects.

Carbon monoxide (CO)—A product of combustion, carbon monoxide can be detrimental to your health when inhaled. CO exposure decreases the amount of oxygen in your blood, negatively impacting the functioning of your brain, heart and other vital organs.

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs)—HCAs become mainly a nutritional problem because of the chemical reaction that occurs when meat is charred. When grilling food, most people want to see (and taste) the signature char marks on the meat. However, the more charred a piece of food is, the more HCAs it is likely to contain. HCAs are chemicals that are formed when proteins, creatine, and sugars from meat, poultry or fish react at high temperatures. HCA levels present in cooked foods increase with cooking temperature and time. According to the CDC, HCAs are known carcinogens.

The toxic fumes created during a barbecue do not only affect those in attendance. One 2012 study for the State of California Air Resources Board found that summertime grilling across different homes in an area can cause emissions to accumulate and impact the health of everyone in the community (Wexler & Pinkerton, 2012).

Does barbecue fuel choice affect emissions?

There are a wide variety of fuel choices that you can use for your grill. Most people have a preference based on taste and ease of use. However, different grilling fuels have different impacts on air quality and health.

  • Charcoal—The top offender when it comes to harmful emissions such as HCAs, PAHs, smoke and ash, charcoal grilling is responsible for air pollution that extends past the boundaries of a single barbecue and can negatively impact the public health (Wexler & Pinkerton, 2012). The longer you grill with the same set of charcoal, the more PAHs and HCAs you create with each use (Viegas, et. al, 2012).
  • Smoking woods—Like charcoal, smoking woods such as hickory and mesquite emit significant amounts of harmful substances when burned. According to the EPA, these include PAHs, benzene, acrolein and formaldehyde.
  • Natural gas and propane—Widely considered as “green” alternatives to charcoal grilling, natural gas and propane release less particulate matter than charcoal briquettes and smoking woods. Additionally, they can easily be turned off when you are finished grilling, unlike charcoal that continues to release emissions after you have stopped cooking.
  • Lighter fluidAccording to the EPA, the lighter fluid that you use to ignite your charcoal emits harmful VOCs in two stages. First, when you pour it on the charcoal, some of the lighter fluid evaporates and releases VOCs into the air. Additional VOCs are emitted when you burn the charcoal.
  • Cooking sprays and oils—Using cooking sprays and oils can increase the particulate matter and fumes created while grilling. However, not all oils are the same. For example, at high temperatures, canola oil has been found to emit less VOCs than olive oil, and vegetable oil creates more PM emissions than peanut oil. Overall, olive oil typically has the highest average cooking emission rate, while corn oil has the lowest (Hu, et. al, 2012).

Note: Meat juices and drippings that fall onto the fuel source while grilling can be a significant source of combustion emissions (Lee, et. al, 2016).

Is barbecue smoke bad for children?

Children and pregnant women are more vulnerable to the adverse health effects caused by barbecue smoke inhalation and exposure to VOCs (listed above). Because their vital organs are still growing—and because children breathe in more air relative to their body weight than adults—these higher-risk individuals should take special care to reduce smoke inhalation during a barbecue.

Bottom line: Is barbecue smoke bad for your health?

Barbecue smoke, especially when created by grilling with charcoal, can be a significant source of air pollution. The person doing the actual grilling will have the highest VOC exposure, but most people around the barbecue will be exposed to harmful emissions, either by inhaling them or absorbing them through the skin. Even those who take care to avoid the barbecue smoke will still ingest VOCs when they eat the grilled meat. Barbecuing may be bad for your health, but that does not mean that you have to give it up completely. There are steps that you can take to decrease the negative health effects of grilling.

How can you limit the harmful effects of barbecue smoke?

At your next barbecue, you can try the following tips to limit your exposure to VOCs.

  • Use propane and natural gas in your grill instead of charcoal.
  • Grill with an open hood to allow the smoke to disperse.
  • Monitor the temperature of your grill to keep it from getting too hot and burning the food.
  • Remove the charred parts of grilled meat or vegetables before eating.
  • Flip meat often while cooking to reduce HCA formation.
  • Pre-cook meat before grilling to reduce the time that it is exposed to high temperatures.
  • Purchase and cook leaner meat to cut down on fat drippings. Additionally, you can try putting foil under meat while grilling to keep fat and juices from dripping.
  • Consider grilling vegetables instead of meat to avoid HCAs and PAHs caused by fat dripping onto the heat source.
  • Change out of and wash your smoke-exposed clothes after a barbecue.

Knowing how to limit hazardous fumes is the first step to a healthy BBQ season. Acting on these tips may help ensure that you breathe cleaner air during the summer.

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