Smoke gets in your eyes and in your food, too - Health and Disease

Cool that gril
Cool that gril

Burning

Summertime is when the outdoor grills and the barbecue pits get fired up and the smoke production ramps up. Some time ago I reported in a journal on the radioactivity of tobacco smoke and the many other cancer-causing compounds in smoke from burning tobacco. After the article was published, a reader sent an inquiry asking what similarly dangerous things might be found in the smoke from his outdoor charcoal cooker. "Is barbecue smoke as dangerous to my health as the smoke from a lighted cigarette," he asked.

The question he asked was a good one, and there was plenty of reason for his asking it, too. I did not have a good answer for him, but I advised him that it would probably be a great idea for him to avoid sticking his head into a cloud of barbecue smoke with a lot of deep breathing. While I still have not personally studied the deleterious effects of breathing dense charcoal smoke and wood smoke from the outdoor cookery, I will stick by my advice – keep your nose out of the smoke. Stick with regular air.

Let’s talk about wood and its burning. This will also include the burning of charcoal.

What is wood? Wood is composed of organic materials, plus inorganic minerals, plus lots of water. Freshly cut wood has lots of water in it, but after wood sits around for a year or two, some water remains but most will be gone. That wood is now called "seasoned." Some of the organic materials in wood are hydrocarbons, many of them volatile (they can evaporate). Some are carbohydrates, a main one of those being cellulose. That is where most of the carbon is to be found in wood. Wood also has a considerable complement of minerals (referred to as ash) of which there is a lot of calcium, magnesium, potassium and some others.

Hydrocarbons burn – witness gasoline, a hydrocarbon not found in wood, by the way (in the event you wondered about that). So does the carbohydrate, cellulose. The wood’s minerals do not burn and are left behind after the rest of the wood goes.

 

Charcoal fire with mesquite wood chunks on top for smoke
Charcoal fire with mesquite wood chunks on top for smoke

Charcoal and Outdoor Cooking

This gets us to consider the use of charcoal for outdoor cooking fires instead of using wood, green and wet wood for lots of smoke, or well-seasoned and drier wood for some, but not a lot of, smoke. What is charcoal, anyway?

If you put some wood into a closed chamber, away from air and its oxygen, and then heat it to about 1,000 degrees, you will drive everything out of the wood except for its carbon and the minerals, the ash. That’s what you buy at the store – a sack of carbon from wood now liberated of its volatile hydrocarbons and everything else other than its carbon and its minerals. What will be left in it that would likely harm you should you happen to breathe in the heated air above a charcoal fire? The correct answer is "not much."

If there is little or nothing above a charcoal fire other than carbon dioxide from combining carbon with oxygen, why worry? The worry comes from the use of moist wood added to the charcoal fire for the purpose of producing smoke. Why smoke? The smoke is used to add flavor to the foods being cooked. That smoke is not like the invisible carbon dioxide from the charcoal alone. It is visible due to the unburnt hydrocarbons it contains. Those are heated out of the wood and, as they rise away and cool down, they condense and there they are – smoke.

If you are grilling hamburgers or similarly sized meats at high heat directly over a charcoal fire, be aware that the meat contains organic compounds. In the presence of high heat and volatile hydrocarbons found in wood smoke, several probably dangerous compounds are produced – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heterocyclic amines (HCA). Charred meat and charred fats can become loaded with them. They stay with the food and you don’t breathe them in. You swallow them. They are not good for you.

Cutting down the heat of cooking reduces the production of PAH and HCA. Whereas you might grill a hamburger for ten minutes over a bed of glowing charcoal, you would barbecue a ten pound brisket for hours at a temperature of 220 degrees, F. Not only will you avoid lots of probably carcinogenic hydrocarbons and amines, the brisket roast will be more tender and tasty than you might believe possible.

There are several other things you might want to avoid when you do your outdoor cooking with charcoal. It is a good idea to use "lump charcoal" instead of briquettes. Lump charcoal is just charcoal – pure carbon. Briquettes may contain other things used to hold crushed charcoal together. It may not be that easy to find out what those "other things" may be. Also, if you use a liquid starter to get your charcoal fire going, be sure to allow the starter flames to go away completely before you start the grilling or the barbecuing.

Here are some Internet links to information about grilling, barbecuing, and contamination of foods with dangerous compounds encountered in outdoor cooking.

Link One Link Two Link Three

 

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Comments 23 comments

breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 6 years ago

Thanks for the great advice. Is there anything we do that's good for us?


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA Author

Pop, there sure enough are things we do that are good for us, but if I were to mention them, people would likely complain about my language.

Gus ;-)


drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

Hi, Gus - I guess throwing another barbie on the fire may not be the healthiest thing to do. And I looove barbecue ribs.

Thanks for the excellent information - never really thought much about different types of charcoal, etc. Now I'll have to pay more attention to such things.


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA Author

Good Doctor bj -- You can get a 40-pound sack of lump charcoal at the warehouse stores for the same price as 2 Twenty pound sacks of charcoal briquettes, half or so of which is filler materials. Like you, I really enjoy BBQ ribs. Have what is left of 3 racks of them in the refrigerator after this weekend. This weekend it was also chicken "quarters." They were giving them away at the store for a buck a pound. Covered them over with tons of garlic and chicken rub spices. Turned the "sidearm" cooker on them at about 350 degrees (the fire pot part is in the photo above). When they were close to done, sprayed them with a spray of 50-50 Pepsi + W-sauce. The troops went nuts. Oh yes, before I forget to tell you, the ribs were 4 hours at 250 degrees.

Gus :-)))


Lady Guinevere profile image

Lady Guinevere 6 years ago from West Virginia

Learned something today from your informative hub. Now another question: What would the benefits be if someone were to use that lump coal in a wood burning fireplace? I mean ad it to the wood to extend the heat coming into the room. Where can one purchase lump coal instead of charcoal in the winter months?

Oh and slow cooked is much better than quick cooked!


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA Author

Lady G - You are asking me some things well beyond my supposed "expertise." But, first of all, I spoke of lump charcoal and not lump coal.

However, I would suggest that the heat from a wood-burning fireplace depends more on the fireplace design than, perhaps, the fuel alone. I did have a bit of experience researching and writing about such fireplaces and, although I cannot share what I wrote about them due to contracts, etc., the Internet is loaded with good info about them. There were several clients for whom I wrote. Here is the "order" data for one of those.

You can follow up using this info... "Our company name is Horizon Services Inc. We are a company that provides heater repair services and installations to the Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland areas. We are looking for new content for a page on our website. The content should be VERY FORMALLY styled, in a VERY CORPORATE TONE in paragraph form."

It was an interesting assignment. I hope that you learn a whole bunch by following up on these things.

Gus :-)))


Lady Guinevere profile image

Lady Guinevere 6 years ago from West Virginia

Thanks Gus. I am just trying to find out what I can use to extend the heat life for when--say we go to sleep and we still need the heat. I was also thinking of Lava Rocks.


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA Author

LG - They sell fire pellets and the fireplaces have a pellet-feeder that can be set to work over whatever period of time you like. As I recollect, those gadgets can be retrofitted to existing fireplaces.

Gus :-)))


KFlippin profile image

KFlippin 6 years ago from Amazon

Okay, here's a question from someone lazy some evenings in the winter. I like to buy a few of those fake logs to make/start a low fire when I don't want to stand over rich liter pine and work to get it and the logs flaming. Are those handy logs lump charcoal? Or are they of the briquette type? If you ran across that in your looking, please let me know!

Thanks, Katie


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA Author

Hi Katie - Neither lump charcoal nor briquette. The next time you go to the store, check out the label on the fake log. You will be in for a bit of a surprise.

Gus :-)))


bayoulady profile image

bayoulady 6 years ago from Northern Louisiana,USA

Gus, this is chock full of " I didn't know that stuff"!(I won't list all I did't know!) I'm going to try and find lump charcoal locally. It's a two hour drive to the warehouse store.RATE UP!


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA Author

bayoulady - Warehouse stores generally have the best price for lump charcoal, but we find it in the grocery stores, home depot type places, etc. One thing you have to watch out for with lump charcoal is that it likes to toss sparks around when it starts burning.

Gus :-)))


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Heck, you can use solar cooking in Texas right now. Who needs charcoal?

I have a craving for brisket after reading this hub. Thanks, Gus.


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA Author

Austinstar - I ALWAYS have a carving for brisket! Andyou are exactly correct about the solar cooking in Texas. Plenty hot out there.

Gus :-)))


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA Author

Austinstar - Well I meant to say "craving," but I did say "carving." Both words are true. Give me a brisket to carve and I will get right to work.

Gus :-)))


KFlippin profile image

KFlippin 6 years ago from Amazon

Well, maybe as long as I don't stick my head in the fireplace, and no raccoons are nesting and sending the smoke back the other way, I'll be sort of okay. But, I will read the dang label and see what's in there!


sheila b. profile image

sheila b. 6 years ago

This was an interesting page to read. I stay out of the smoke but have noticed it seems to keep the bugs away.


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA Author

Hi sheila b - Well, I HAVE met lady bugs, potato bugs, squash bugs, camera bugs, spying bugs, and lots of other bugs, but I never did meet up with a crazy bug. Only a crazy bug would hang around smoke. Right?

Gus :-)))


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 6 years ago from USA Author

Katiwe - Forgive me for not answering your welcome comment earlier than 10 days later! Shame on me. I have put the word out to all racoons - keep away from friend Katie's place.

Gus :-)))


jamiesweeney profile image

jamiesweeney 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

I love it.


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 5 years ago from USA Author

Hello Jamie - I am glad that you enjoyed this article.

Gus:-)))


Sun-Girl profile image

Sun-Girl 5 years ago from Nigeria

Useful hub and thanks for sharing.


GusTheRedneck profile image

GusTheRedneck 5 years ago from USA Author

Hi Sun-Girl - You are most welcome.

Gus :-)))

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