What are the dangers of charcoal grilling?

Charcoal is often a preferred method of cooking, but as with any form of grilling, it does come with dangers. One obvious danger of charcoal grilling is the risk of fire, but what causes the fire is sometimes less predictable. For example, while cooking, oils can drip onto the charcoal and lead to flare-ups. You also have to be careful to avoid tipping of the grill, and be aware of the fact that unlike other forms of grilling, charcoal cannot be "turned off" after you're done using it. A less obvious danger associated with the use of charcoal grills is the production of carbon monoxide, an odorless gas that is deadly if inhaled, so be sure to always use charcoal grills outside in well-ventilated areas. The last issue is the use of lighter fluid, some of which can be toxic, so be sure to always use lighter fluids made for charcoal grilling.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
Lighter fluid plus charcoal plus match equals a problem. Petroleum-based lighter fluid produces volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and leaves petroleum residue on food and in your lungs. Skip the lighter fluid! Try these healthier ways to get the grill going:
  • Charcoal chimney starter ($10 to $35): It looks like an oversized metal beer mug with a grate near the bottom. Put in the charcoal, ignite it with paper, and in 15 to 30 minutes the briquettes are good to go.
  • Electric charcoal starter ($10 to $20): This is a metal coil you bury in a mound of charcoal and plug in. In 8 to 15 minutes, the fire's on its way.
That said, it's better to eliminate charcoal completely. A propane or natural gas grill is cleaner and more energy-efficient, but charcoal is probably okay a few times each year. Just know it produces soot that irritates respiratory conditions, such as asthma, and releases the carcinogenic VOC benzene, so stand out of the smoke. Also avoid quick-start charcoal soaked with lighter fluid and charcoal with additives, such as sodium nitrate.

Now flip that veggie burger!
Bryce B. Wylde
Alternative & Complementary Medicine
If you use a charcoal grill either at home or in the park, food can easily burn if not monitored closely. But beyond the health risk of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), charcoal grills carry a risk of starting a fire somewhere you may not want one because of the hot ash and embers that float through the air and fall from the draft holes at the bottom of the grills. It might be wise to keep a bucket of water or a fire extinguisher nearby.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.