EYE ON THE ENVIRONMENT | JULY 4 BARBECUES: GAS VERSUS CHARCOAL
June 29th, 2022
by David Goldstein
As you prepare to celebrate Independence Day with Fourth of July barbecues, consider the example of Ali Ghasemi, the executive officer at the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District. “I have two gas barbecues,” he told me. “One connected to the natural gas of 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 his home’s natural gas line, because, he said, “Gas and electric grills are more energy efficient and produce fewer pollutants than charcoal. Pollutants from charcoal include PM10, PM2.5, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.”
The letters in the first two pollutants he listed stand for “particulate matter,” and the numbers are measurements of particle size. “PM2.5 (can) travel into and deposit on the surface of the deeper parts of the lung, while PM10 is more likely to deposit on the surfaces of the larger airways of the upper region of the lung” and “can induce tissue damage, and lung inflammation,” according to the website of the California Air Resources Board. The board also notes, “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.”
The latter two pollutants are carcinogens, but risk depends greatly on exposure levels, duration and factors specific to individuals, according to the U.S. EPA. The more likely effect of exposure from an occasional barbecue is irritation of skin, eyes, nose and throat.
Charcoal from barbecues can also be “a significant source of trace metal emissions . . . exceeding the inhalation minimum 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 so much of our local electric power is supplied by renewable sources. It is especially favored by people whose outdoor cooking 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 with gas, and since our home is entirely electric powered, with energy from photovoltaic panels, we rely on propane canisters for the barbeque. I recently refilled an empty five-pound tank with 1.2-gallons of propane at U-Haul for under $7. This is an inexpensive way to obtain fuel, but U-Haul will not refill tanks more than five years old, waiting in line for a U-Haul attendant can take some time, and self-service was not available.
More convenient, but more expensive, Ralphs offers pre-filled tanks in partnership with Blue Rhino. Ralphs charges $59.99 for a new tank without an exchange, but just $21.99 for a tank exchange. Presumably, this should be a faster option than re-filling, but when I tried it recently at a Ralphs in Ventura, finding a staff person familiar with the program took some time. I first asked a checkout clerk, who referred me to the customer service desk attendant, who called over a manager, who asked a staff person to help me. Overall, the time involved was about the same as U-Haul.
Barbecuing with charcoal briquettes remains a popular option, partly because charcoal can add a smoky flavor. For John Polich of Agoura Hills, whose family will barbecue at a local lake next weekend, “I just do it that way because that’s how I learned to barbecue.”
Even those committed to charcoal have options for pollution reduction, however. “I’ve been at sites where lighter fluid is prohibited,” said Polich, “so I learned how to use a charcoal chimney, with crumpled paper in it, 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 items, according to Lester Graham’s podcast “The Environment Report.” Graham cites experts recommending a charcoal chimney or an electrical charcoal starter instead of lighter fluid.
Ghasemi, of the Air Pollution Control District, provides additional tips for those using charcoal. Citing the studies on the website of the MD Anderson Cancer Center, he noted, “You can also cut air emissions and reduce cancer risk by cleaning your grill, avoiding charring of meat, using a marinade, and trimming fat.”
David Goldstein, Environmental Resource Analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-658-4312.