Grill Safety

When Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich proclaimed, “Use a barbecue, go to jail” last March, it ignited a fire under the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The supervisor referred to an SCAQMD proposal, Rule 1174, that would ban charcoal lighting methods that are hazardous to the environment. If approved, the law would prohibit sales of bag-light charcoal, charcoal lighter fluid, self-lighting charcoal, cube starters and ethanol gel.

These have been proven to pollute the ozone through their release of reactive hydrocarbons. In Los Angeles, a mecca for outdoor cookery, three to four tons of the fumes are released each day. On holidays, that figure jumps to six or seven tons.

Despite the supervisor’s remark and public fears that this ruling would intrude on the rights of barbecuers, the SCAQMD said the proposed law will simply set standards for charcoal-lighting products similar to those for paints and other hazardous materials. It will ban the sale of products that fail to meet the requirements.


“It doesn’t mean anyone has to stop barbecuing,” said Bill Kelly, spokesperson for SCAQMD, “because there are other ways to light a fire.”

The law provides acceptable methods of igniting barbecue charcoal. These include the chimney with paper tinder, the electric probe, natural gas, propane and treated wood chips.

And the SCAQMD isn’t the only group that has voiced concern about the hazards of barbecuing. The American Institute for Cancer Research says that although more research into the area is needed, there appears to be a link between cancer and charcoal-broiled foods.

One theory is that cooking on an outdoor grill converts some of the proteins in the meat into products that damage the genetic material of human cells. DNA damage has been linked to cancer development.

Another hypothesis is that the fat that drips onto hot coals or stones forms a known carcinogen, benzopyrene. The smoke that rises from the fire carries this substance up to the meat and deposits it on the surface and that, it is feared, leads to cancer development.

Charring of food is also seen as a problem because another carcinogen is released when food is burnt.

The institute emphasizes, however, that there is no evidence that occasional summer cookouts increase cancer risk. It offers the following tips for more frequent grill users.

--Select meats that are low in fat for a lower production of carcinogens.

--Cover the grill with foil before cooking, then punch a few holes to allow the fat to drip off and protect the food from smoke damage.

--Cook meat until done--but avoid charring it. Remove any blackened surface matter from the foods.

--Discourage flare ups. Keep a squirt bottle full of water handy for dampening coals that become too hot or flare up.

--Use a drip pan whenever possible but make sure it doesn’t rest on the burning coals.

--Precook poultry, ribs and vegetables to reduce the cooking time on grills and cut down on the amount of fat released. Then grill briefly to add a subtle grilled flavor.