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How Bad Is BBQ Smoke for Your Health, and What is In It?


What are the biggest sources of outdoor air pollution? If you suspected vehicles and industry, you would be right — but numerous other human activities contribute to poor air quality, too. They include construction sites and utility companies, but also the recreational and do-it-yourself activities families exactly like yours engage in.


If you just love grilling in your backyard during the hotter months of the year, that very much includes your BBQ. Just how bad is barbecue smoke for your health, what’s in it, and what do you need to know to protect yourself and other members of your household?


What Is In BBQ Smoke?


Let’s be honest — you already knew that grilled foods are not the healthiest possible choice. You enjoy a good barbecue anyway, just like 87 percent of Americans, not only because it is so tasty, but also because summer BBQs are such a unique opportunity to have fun with your friends and family. The smoke that’s part and parcel of the experience? You probably associate it with good memories. It’s contents are far less appealing, on the other hand:


  • Harmful gases. These include carbon monoxide, but also other dangerous substances classified as Volatile Organic Compounds. Being exposed to these compounds over prolonged periods of time, or in high doses, has the potential to contribute to acute symptoms like dizziness and shortness of breath, but also to long-term medical conditions that range from asthma and liver damage to cancer. Carbon monoxide is further known to be able to cause harm to babies in utero.
  • Particulate matter released by fuel and food alike as you BBQ. Upon inhaling these particles, which may vary in size from those you can easily see to those that are invisible to the naked eye, can cause a variety of health complications. Short-term respiratory irritation is just the start.
  • Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been linked to several different kinds of cancer, including lung cancer.


The potential health consequences of being exposed to barbecue smoke can be so severe that the CDC puts people who grill a lot into the same category as others who are professionally exposed to smoke and other combustion-related byproducts, such as firefighters, those working in auto body garages, and workers within certain heavy industries. While this mostly applies to chefs working in professional kitchens, avid barbecue fans are not safe from the health consequences of BBQ smoke, either.


If you have ever covered your face with a scarf or a t-shirt in an effort to protect yourself from the smoke blowing into your nose and mouth as you grill, that was likely an instinctive attempt to keep your airways safe. Your lungs are not the only way for harmful substances found in BBQ smoke to enter your body, however. Research has found that a larger percentage of known carcinogens contained in BBQ smoke is, in fact, absorbed through the skin. That means that even if you are being extremely diligent and wearing, for instance, an N95 respirator while operating the barbecue, you remain exposed to dangerous chemicals.


What’s more, the fact that scientific studies have discovered that BBQ events can lead to increased outdoor air pollution for entire neighborhoods, which can linger for surprisingly long amounts of time, means that barbecue smoke can also easily make its way into your own home when the BBQ is taking place in your yard. Most people will have open doors and windows on their property when they grill, but the smoke can find its way inside even if that doesn’t include you. Once smoke settles on the surfaces of your home, it will be once again be released every time you disturb it as you dust, vacuum, or clean the walls.


What Can You Do To Protect Your Health When You Have a BBQ?


First, you can reexamine the outdoor cooking method and fuel you use to reduce your exposure to harmful substances contained in BBQ smoke.


All outdoor cooking methods are associated with the risk of inhaling smoke and all the pollutants therein, as well as absorbing chemicals through the skin and ingesting them in the food you eat. Whether you use a smoker or opt for grilling with a barbecue that has a closed hood, you will face similar risks; as Volatile Organic Compounds and particles are released during the BBQ, they are likely to attach themselves to the meat you then eat. Grilling with an open hood reduces this risk of contaminating your food, but it also, on the other hand, causes higher levels of air pollution that can also affect your health.


The grilling fuel you choose for your barbecue does greatly impact the quantity and type of pollutants you and the rest of your crowd may encounter. Charcoal has widely been shown to have the biggest potential to release harmful chemicals, and the longer you continue to grill with a particular batch, the higher its polluting power. Smoking woods emit a nasty combination of harmful substances, including formaldehyde, as does lighter fluid, while wood may further contain molds that are released into the air as you grill. Propane and gas currently appear to be the safest possible choices for those who are determined to enjoy a barbecue.


In addition to changing the fuel you use and considering using a grill with an open hood, to keep yourself and those around you as safe as possible during a barbecue, you can also:


  • Refrain from grilling around pregnant women, infants, and young children, as these represent the groups most vulnerable to the effects of BBQ smoke.
  • Using canola oil, which have reduced fumes when compared to other popular oils, for your grill.
  • Partially precook your meats before grilling them, and turn them often.
  • Grill vegetables instead of meats.
  • Close your windows and doors when you grill outdoors, and have your barbecue as far away from your property as possible to reduce the quantity of pollutants that will enter your home.
  • Change out of the clothes you wore during the barbecue, have a shower, and wash your hair, when the event is over. Encourage others to do the same.


What Risks Does Indoor Grilling Pose?


People who aren’t able to have a barbecue outside may turn to indoor grilling instead. The experience may not be anywhere close to as good, but that does not mean that indoor grilling is any better for your health. Whether you choose an open indoor grill, a folding contact grill (like a George Foreman Grill), or a grill pan, some of the same harmful fumes are going to be emitted during the process. As with outdoor grilling, you have to be fire conscious and safety aware.


Because indoor grills do not drain fluids nearly as effectively as outdoor BBQs, chefs have to remember to let the meat cool off to safe temperatures before serving it. The heat and water vapor created during this process also poses the risk of condensation, which may create humid conditions.


How and When Should You Clean Your Grill?


Many people are quite aware that BBQ smoke, released during the combustion process, cannot possibly  be healthy — but if you were caught by surprise upon finding your grill or smoker positively covered in mold growth, you would certainly not be the first.


Grilling releases large amounts of water vapor and coats your grill or smoker with oil and other organic substances. Mold doesn’t only grow in your neighbor’s damp basement or on that apple you forgot about. Diverse mold species can thrive wherever they have a source of water, in the form of humid air, and food that can be almost any organic substance. To prevent your grill or smoker from becoming a mold habitat, super heat it after the barbecue is over. Remove all the fuel. Let it cool off all the way before pressure cleaning washing it, scrubbing it with water and a royal dose of good old dish soap, and drying the grill completely before storing it.


These simple steps will prevent mold buildup within your grill in most cases. If, on the other hand, you find your grill covered in mold when you get it out again after a long winter in your shed, basement, or garage, even after cleaning it well, that could be a sign of a more systemic mold infestation within your property.


Mold quickly accumulates in humid spaces, sometimes in as little as 24 hours. Because dark, moist, and often hidden spaces are typical places for mold to grow, it can sometimes take a while before you realize that you have a mold problem. Spotting a moldy grill could be your first clue that your home as a wider mold infestation. So, what do you do now?


By calling MI&T, an established nationwide mold inspection only company, you will soon know exactly what is going on in your home. Our independent mold inspectors will perform a detailed visual sweep that encompasses both more obvious and places and those that are out of your reach and sight. Then, we take air samples that are lab analyzed to let you know what types of mold may be present on your property, and in what concentrations.


Because mold infestations can have negative health consequences on par with those of BBQ smoke inhalation and exposure, and because molds spreads quickly, it is crucial to act fast. Once your mold inspection is complete, you can begin taking the right steps to remediate the problem — and you can again count on MI&T for clearance testing once that is done.