Barbecue season should be a happy time, filled with the aroma of grilled meat and wood smoke. However, if you do your cooking over charcoal, there are facts you should know to stay safe when using the grill. Charcoal briquettes, if used improperly, can be a threat to your health, or even your life.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Charcoal briquettes emit carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is a toxic, invisible vapour that builds up indoors and can result in poisoning, unconsciousness, or even death. Since charcoal briquettes don't emit smoke, there is no visual signal to warn of the carbon monoxide danger. Venting the room doesn't eliminate the risk; therefore, charcoal briquettes should never be used to cook inside a home, tent or RV; they must only be used outdoors.
Potential Carcinogenic Effects
Cooking with charcoal the wrong way can result in health dangers. According to the American Cancer Association, "meat that has been fried and/or charcoal-grilled at a very high temperature can produce carcinogenic substances (heterocyclic amines)." The Association recommends avoidance of charred foods, especially red meat, cooked at very high heat for a long period of time. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPINET) also states that grilling can result in chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. PAHs form when fat drips on flames or hot coals; they float on smoke and can be inhaled, or settle on food. According to the CSPINET, although there's no proof these chemicals cause cancer in humans,12 of the 18 PAHs found in cooked food cause cancer in laboratory animals.
Charcoal can throw up sooty dust and fumes that can be irritating to the lungs and can cause respiratory problems in those with allergies or asthma. Some charcoal briquettes are soaked in lighter fluid, which can also be irritating. Some advise using cleaner-burning sources of heat, such as gas, propane or electric grills.
Fires have been started by wet or discarded charcoal briquettes. Wet charcoal is a danger because it can spontaneously combust. A bag of wet or damp charcoal should be disposed of right away. Spent charcoal can start a fire if there is still a live spark inside; dispose of spent charcoal in a metal container covered with a tight lid.