Barbecue Rule Adopted to Take a Bite Out of Smog


Moving their battle against smog to back-yard barbecues and beach cookouts, Southern California air quality officials Friday adopted the nation’s only rule intended to force consumers to use environmentally sound ways to cook outdoors.

Smog-causing barbecue equipment--including traditional types of lighter fluid and pre-soaked briquettes--must be removed from store shelves in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties by January, 1992, under the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s new rule.

“It’s a very small bite (in smog), but it’s a necessary one,” said Marvin Braude, an AQMD board member and Los Angeles city councilman. “We must regulate individuals’ activities. . . . This is a genuine and important aspect of cleaning the air.”

The regulation marks one of the first times that Southern California consumers have been required to change their habits to clean the region’s notoriously smoggy air. But it will not be the last. Sixteen other polluting household products--from bug spray to air fresheners--will be targeted by the state Air Resources Board next week.


The measure does not ban outright any barbecue products; it only outlaws stores selling anything that emits more than 0.02 pounds of pollutants each time a grill is started.

Propane and gas grills, electric charcoal starters, paper tinder chimneys and some fire chips and starter gels already comply. But lighter fluid and self-starting charcoal can be sold after 1991 only if manufacturers can change the formulas and provide tests proving the products meet the new standard. The petroleum-based fluid releases four to five times more pollutants than the limit, according to AQMD estimates.

During two hours of impassioned testimony and debate, barbecue industry officials opposed the rule, saying it restricts Southern Californians’ freedom to cook outdoors, which is as much a part of the region’s popular culture as sunbathing and surfing.

About two-thirds of consumers who grill food prefer lighter fluid, according to the Barbecue Industry Assn., a trade group based in Illinois.


“People want to use what’s convenient. And if lighter fluid is not on the shelf, they may use something that is much worse and much more unsafe, like gasoline or paint thinner,” said Sandra Burton, executive director of the association.

Manufacturers warned that a survey they conducted shows that 70,000 Southern Californians will turn to gasoline to soak charcoal, which is extremely dangerous. AQMD officials said, however, that common sense will prevail among consumers because options such as electric starters are safe, readily available and cheap.

Clorox Co., which makes lighter fluid and charcoal, and other manufacturers failed to persuade the board to grant them more time to comply and a less stringent standard so they can reformulate lighter fluid to make it burn cleaner.

“This rule is unprecedented because industry finds its products effectively banned with really no chance to reformulate,” said Pat Meehan, director of environment and safety for Kingsford Co., the barbecue-products division of Clorox Co. in Oakland.

Burton said manufacturers will try to reformulate lighter fluid to meet the new standard, but whether they succeed by the deadline depends on how rigid the AQMD will be with its tests.

Every day, residents of the four counties spray about 2,700 gallons of lighter fluid, which contains 100% petroleum-based compounds, the main ingredient of smog.

Consumers using the fluid emit an average of two tons of pollutants per day--equivalent to the daily emissions of 34,000 cars or an oil refinery. Refineries are the largest industrial sources of air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin, air-quality officials said.

On a typical summer day, when smog is especially troublesome, use of lighter fluid doubles, with fumes reaching about four tons a day, the AQMD says.


“This is symbolic because we’re breaking into consumer products,” said James Lents, executive officer of the AQMD, which traditionally has regulated factories and other businesses. “But it is more than just a symbolic move. In the summer, it would get rid of four tons of emissions a day. That’s as much as the entire aerospace industry.”

Meehan called the AQMD’s emissions estimates “grossly exaggerated,” saying they are probably twice the actual figures.

Consumers will not be arrested or fined for using lighter fluid or pre-soaked coals. Instead, AQMD inspectors will periodically check stores, and retailers who sell illegal products face fines as high as $25,000 per day.

The stakes were high for the manufacturers, who waged an intensive mail and phone lobbying campaign for months. From $2.3 million to $5.8 million worth of lighter fluid is sold a year in the four-county Los Angeles Basin, about 6% of the product’s national sales, according to AQMD estimates.

Anti-smog officials said the rule is a small step toward a big goal-- removing 80% of emissions in the Los Angeles Basin in less than 20 years. Eliminating lighter fluid will cut less than two-tenths of 1% of the region’s daily emissions.

The highly publicized barbecue proposal has been a symbol in the bitter political fight over the AQMD’s 20-year clean-air plan, which was adopted last year. The rule is one of more than 100 measures in the plan that target the region’s industries, cars and consumers.

Animosity about the issue remained Friday, and the board’s 10-1 vote to adopt the measure came after one of the board’s stormiest debates in recent months.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, an AQMD board member who cast the dissenting vote, said the rule will lead to “gangs of barbecue inspectors” that will harass store owners with exorbitant fines. He also said residents can cross into other counties to buy lighter fluid and bring it back.


Board chairman Norton Younglove said Antonovich’s comments were “pure nonsense,” and board member Sabrina Schiller lambasted Antonovich as uninformed about the rule, calling his concerns “trivial and silly.” Antonovich retorted that her comments were “pathetic.”


Consumers using barbecue lighter fluid emit about 2 tons of volatile organic compounds a day in the Los Angeles Basin. The compounds are the main ingredient of smog. In comparison, 34,000 cars release about the same amount per day. Daily Emissions Los Angeles County: 2,640 pounds Orange County: 700 pounds Riverside County: 280 pounds S. Bernardino County: 360 pounds Total: 3,980 pounds Source: The AQMD