ON THE PICTURE : BBQ is a summer vacation favorite
by David Goldstein
As you prepare to celebrate Independence Day with 4th of July barbecues, consider the example of Ali Ghasemi, the general manager of Ventura County’s Air Pollution Control District. “I have two gas grills,” he told me. “One connected to natural gas in the house, and one that uses a propane tank.”
Ghasemi uses gas, even when he wants to barbecue in an area of his yard that is not connected to the natural gas line to his house because, he said, “gas grills and electric are more energy efficient and produce fewer pollutants than charcoal. Charcoal pollutants include PM10, PM2.5, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.
The letters of the first two pollutants he listed mean “particulate matter” and the numbers are measurements of particle size. “PM2.5 (can) move and deposit on the surface of the deep parts of the lung, while PM10 is more likely to deposit on the surfaces of the wider airways in the upper lung region” and “can induce tissue damage”. , and lung inflammation,” according to the California Air Resources Board website. The council also notes that “short-term exposures to PM10 have been associated primarily with worsening of respiratory diseases, including asthma” and “long-term (months to years) exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to… reduced lung function growth in children.
These last two pollutants are carcinogenic, but the risk is highly dependent on exposure levels, duration and individual-specific factors, according to the US EPA. The most likely effect of exposure to occasional barbecue is irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat.
Barbecue charcoal can also be “a significant source of trace metal emissions. . . exceeding the minimum inhalation risk levels of the United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry,” according to sciencedirect.com.
Cooking with an outdoor electric grill may be the cleanest option, especially in Ventura County where much of our local electric power is provided by renewable sources. It is especially popular with people whose outdoor kitchen is limited to a small balcony. But it may not provide the same thrill as barbecuing with a flame.
Personally, my wife and I barbecue on gas, and since our house is all electric, with power from photovoltaic panels, we rely on propane canisters for the barbecue. I recently filled an empty five pound tank with 1.2 gallons of propane at U-Haul for less than $7. It’s an inexpensive way to get fuel, but U-Haul won’t refill tanks over five years old, queuing for a U-Haul attendant can take a while, and self-serve was not not available.
More convenient, but more expensive, Ralphs offers pre-filled reservoirs in partnership with Blue Rhino. Ralphs charges $59.99 for a new tank without a trade-in, but only $21.99 for a tank trade-in. Presumably this should be a faster option than refilling, but when I tried it recently at a Ralphs in Ventura, finding a staff member familiar with the program took a while. First I asked a cashier, who referred me to the customer service representative, who called a manager, who asked a staff member to help me. Overall the time taken was about the same as U-Haul.
Barbecuing with charcoal briquettes remains a popular option, in part because charcoal can add a smoky flavor. For John Polich of Agoura Hills, whose family will be barbecuing by a local lake next weekend, “I just do it this way because that’s how I learned to make a barbecue.”
However, even those who engage in charcoal have options to reduce pollution. “I’ve been to sites where lighter fluid is banned,” Polich said, “so I learned how to use a charcoal fireplace, with crumpled paper, and I’ve been using it ever since.”
Lighter fluid is categorized as an aliphatic petroleum solvent. Its flammability makes it dangerous to store and use, but it also contributes to ground-level ozone pollution and can leave a residue in grilled foods, according to Lester Graham’s podcast “The Environment Report.” Graham cites experts recommending a charcoal fireplace or electric charcoal lighter instead of lighter fluid.
Ghasemi, from the Air Pollution Control District, gives additional tips for those who use charcoal. Citing the studies on the MD Anderson Cancer Center website, he noted: “You can also reduce air emissions and reduce cancer risk by cleaning your grill, avoiding charring of meat, using a marinade and reducing fat.”
David Goldstein, environmental resources analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, can be reached at [email protected] or 805-658-4312.