Hearth & Home: P's and Q's of BBQ A guide to guilt-free grilling by Sidney Stevens
Three out of four U.S. households own at least one barbecue grill. Among grill owners, 48 percent fire up with charcoal, 61 percent with propane, and 7 percent with electricity.
Every year when the weather turns warm, my family and I lug out our barbecue grill, fire up the charcoal, and feast on burgers and chicken. Summer wouldn't be summer without smoke wafting across our backyard and the smell of sizzling meat in the air. Our occasional weekend cookouts probably don't warrant much environmental hand-wringing. But multiply our summer fun by millions of families, and this all-American tradition begins to look a little less wholesome.
Nationwide, the estimated 60 million barbecues held on the Fourth of July alone consume enough energy—in the form of charcoal, lighter fluid, gas, and electricity—to power 20,000 households for a year. That one day of fun, food, and celebration, says Tristram West, a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy, burns the equivalent of 2,300 acres of forest and releases 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. It also produces other air pollutants — including a few that might surprise you.
Take Houston, Texas, where 'cuing is practically a way of life. Researchers at Rice University have found that fatty acids in the meat smoke wafting up from the city's grills (including those at restaurants) contribute a small but significant amount of lung-harming particles to Houston's already hazy skies. "Emissions from barbecuing are certainly dwarfed by those from transportation and industrial burning of fuels," notes West. "But this information should get people thinking about all the things they do on a regular basis."
Just a few changes in your cooking style can make a difference. Probably the single biggest consideration is how your grill is powered. Whether you fire up with natural gas, propane, charcoal, or electricity, you're consuming natural resources and releasing toxics, but not all cookouts are created equal. Grilling with charcoal, the traditionalist's choice, gives off more health-harming carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and soot than other methods.
"Charcoal grills and lighter fluid also contribute more to ground-level ozone, which is produced when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic chemicals [VOCs] combine in hot weather conditions," says Ana Gomez, of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Her agency hosts ozone-free barbecues using cleaner-burning propane or electricity. Says Gomez, "We want to remind residents that grilling can be done without these adverse environmental effects."
You can avoid emissions altogether with a slower-cooking solar stove. This flameless device also eliminates heterocyclic amines, a type of carcinogen formed when meats are grilled or broiled at extremely high temperatures. Ditto for carcinogenic hydrocarbons that form when fat from meat, fish, or poultry drips onto hot coals and deposits back onto the food via smoke and flame-ups. If you grill, reduce your exposure by choosing lean meats and trimming fat. Marinades made with vitamin- and antioxidant-rich citrus juices, olive oil, and herbs are tasty and may also prevent carcinogens from forming.
If you can't give up that smoky flavor, consider using lump charcoal instead of briquettes. "Lump charcoal comes from a genuine tree and isn't ground up or processed in any way," explains Rob Bailis, a PhD student in the University of California at Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group. Those popular pillow-shaped briquettes are also made of wood—mostly scraps and sawdust from lumber mills — but many contain coal dust and other unhealthy additives that help them bind together or light more easily. In many developing countries, unregulated charcoal production is a major source of air pollution, as well as deforestation.
Look for lump charcoal made from invasive tree species or harvested from sustainably managed forests, including brands certified by the Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood program. While you're at it, trade in your lighter fluid—which releases smog-forming VOCs—for a chimney charcoal starter. Just load charcoal into the chimney pipe, tuck in crumpled newspaper below, and light. Then get ready for some good eatin'.
Sidney Stevens is a freelance environmental and health writer in Pennsylvania.