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Thursday, April 5, 2007 11:49 am

When grills kill

Air pollution and carcinogens are two hazards of barbecues

Untitled Document Warnings on bags of charcoal say carcinogens are released when the briquettes are burned. Is it safe to breathe in the smell of a charcoal grill?
Barbecue 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: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).
According to the American Cancer Society, PAHs form when fat from meat drips onto the charcoal. They then rise with the smoke and can be deposited on the food. They may 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, not just on grilled meats. In fact, National Cancer Institute researchers have identified 17 different HCAs that result from the cooking of “muscle meats” and that may pose human cancer risks. Studies have also shown increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic, and breast cancers associated with high intake of well-done, fried or barbecued meats. 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 pollute the air in Houston. The city at times registers air-quality levels that rank it as one of the more polluted U.S. urban areas, though emissions from barbecues are certainly dwarfed by those generated by motor vehicles and industry. Both briquettes and lump charcoal create air pollution. Lump charcoal, made from charred wood to add flavor, also contributes to deforestation and adds to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Charcoal briquettes do have the benefit of being made partly from sawdust (a good use of waste wood), but popular brands may also contain coal dust, starch, sodium nitrate, limestone, and borax. 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, or sold in Canada must display a label warning of the potential hazards of the product. No such requirements now exist in the United States. Consumers can avoid exposure to these potentially harmful additives by sticking with so-called natural charcoal brands. Noram de Mexico’s Sierra Madre 100 percent oak hardwood charcoal contains no coal, oil, limestone, starch, sawdust, or petroleum products and, to boot, is certified by the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program as sustainably harvested. The product is available at select Sam’s Clubs across the United States. Other manufacturers of all natural charcoal include Greenlink and Lazzari, both of which can be found at natural-foods outlets across North America.

For more information: Rainforest Alliance SmartWood Program, www.rainforest-alliance.org/programs/forestry/smartwood; Greenlink Charcoal, www.greenlinkcharcoal.com; Lazzari, www.lazzari.com.
Send questions to Earth Talk, care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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