The Health and Pollution Risks of Charcoal Grilling

A backyard cookout

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Cooking with grills can be problematic for two reasons. First, both charcoal and wood burn “dirty,” producing not only hydrocarbons but also tiny soot particles that pollute the air and can aggravate heart and lung problems. Secondly, the grilling of meat can form two kinds of potentially carcinogenic compounds in the cooked meat: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

Charcoal Grilling May Pose Cancer Risks

According to the American Cancer Society, PAHs form when fat from meat drips onto the charcoal. They then rise with the smoke and can get deposited on the food. They can also form directly on the food as it is charred. The hotter the temperature and the longer the meat cooks, the more HCAs are formed.

HCAs can also form on broiled and pan-fried beef, pork, fowl, and fish. In fact, National Cancer Institute researchers have identified 17 different HCAs that result from cooking “muscle meats,” HCAs that may pose human cancer risks. Studies have also shown an increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic, and breast cancers associated with high intakes of well done, fried, or barbequed meats.

Cooking With Charcoal Grills Adds to Air Pollution

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Air Quality, Texans who like to say that they “live and breathe barbecue” may be doing just that to the detriment of their health. A 2003 study by scientists from Rice University found that microscopic bits of polyunsaturated fatty acids released into the atmosphere from cooking meat on backyard barbecues were helping to pollute the air in Houston. The city at times registers air quality levels that rank it one of the more polluted urban areas in the United State. Emissions from barbecues, however, are certainly dwarfed by those generated by motor vehicles and industry.

Both briquettes and lump charcoal create air pollution. The production of lump charcoal, made from charred wood to add flavor, creates other environmental hazards. Their production contributes to deforestation and adds to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Charcoal briquettes do have the benefit of being made partly from sawdust, which is a good use of waste wood. Popular brands, however, may also contain coal dust, starch, sodium nitrate, limestone, and borax.

Canada Considers Charcoal Hazardous

In Canada, charcoal is now a restricted product under the Hazardous Products Act. According to the Canadian Department of Justice, charcoal briquettes in bags that are advertised, imported to, or sold in Canada must display a label warning of the potential hazards of the product. No such requirements presently exist in the United States.

Avoid Health Risks by Using Natural Charcoal

Consumers can avoid exposure to these potentially harmful additives by sticking with so-called natural charcoal brands. Look for charcoal made of 100 percent hardwood and containing no coal, oil, limestone, or petroleum products. Third-party certification programs, like the Forest Stewardship Council, can help choose products that are harvested in a sustainable fashion.

Edited by Frederic Beaudry.