When grilling, beware the air

Posted: July 20, 2007

Dry out the charcoal. Check the propane. Rain or shine, the summer breezes are bound to be carrying the scent of hot dogs and burgers.

Just remember, the U.S. Department of Energy advises that when the coals are ash and the gas is out, they aren't gone. They're in the air.

The millions of barbecues lighted nationwide on the Fourth of July alone consumed enough energy to equal the residential demand of a city of about 47,000 for an entire year, the Energy Department estimates.

Particulates from grilled meats have been found in air-quality studies in Houston, Los Angeles and Atlanta. A Rice University study in 2003 said barbecuing was a small but significant source of particulate air pollution.

So it pays to grill smart.

Propane, natural gas, and electric grills generally are considered easier on the air than charcoal. Proponents of charcoal argue that other fuels create serious emissions, just not in your own backyard.

Here's a tip: Limit your use of lighter fluids on days when air quality is bad, or use lighter-fluid alternatives.

A charcoal chimney, available for $10 to $20 at home-supply stores, is a replacement for lighter fluid. Set it on the grill, roll up newspaper at the bottom, and pour in charcoal. Light the newspaper.

One example: the Weber RapidFire chimney with a "stay cool" handle. You still need to use heat-resistant barbecue mitts, but the handle doesn't get as hot as metal or wood. Cost: $13 at Home Depot.

Traditional charcoal briquettes contain wood scraps that usually would end up in a landfill, as well as sawdust, coal, lime (used to create the white ash), binders made of wheat, corn or other plant starch, and borax, which releases briquettes from the mold.

Instant-light briquettes contain all those ingredients, plus an accelerant. Let the briquettes burn off the accelerants before starting to cook.

Several charcoal brands are releasing briquettes made without additives. Original Charcoal Co. makes Rancher, a nearly additive-free briquette made from South American hardwoods and bound together with yucca starch.

Lump charcoal, which also is called charwood or hardwood charcoal, contains wood from trees or sawmills or wood from scraps of flooring, building materials, furniture, or pallets.

But watch out: This kind of charcoal isn't made into briquettes, so it retains the natural shape of the wood. The outside of the bags doesn't specify if you're getting tree wood or scraps from a factory. You'll know if you open the bag and see burnt pieces that resemble tongue-and-groove floorboards or other crafted shapes.

Manufacturing scrap isn't necessarily bad, but consumers can't tell from the packaging information if the scrap is certified to be clean and chemical-free.

One company, Lazzari, says it harvests only dead mesquite and pruned branches from live trees for its Mesquite Charcoal.

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