Barbecue season should be a happy time, filled with the aroma of grilled meat and wood smoke. However, if you do your cooking over charcoal, there are facts you should know to stay safe when using the grill. Charcoal briquettes, if used improperly, can be a threat to your health, or even your life.

Close-up of Charcoal Briquettes and Flames
credit: Matt Antonino/Hemera/Getty Images
Close-up of burning charcoal briquettes.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Charcoal briquettes emit carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is a toxic, invisible vapor that builds up indoors and can result in poisoning, unconsciousness, or even death. Since charcoal briquettes don't emit smoke, there is no visual signal to warn of the carbon monoxide danger. Venting the room doesn't eliminate the risk, so charcoal briquettes should never be used for cooking inside a home, tent or RV; they must only be used outdoors.

Potential Carcinogenic Effects

According to the American Cancer Association, "meat that has been fried and/or charcoal-grilled at a very high temperature can produce carcinogenic substances (heterocyclic amines)." The ACA recommends avoiding charred foods, especially red meat, cooked at very high heat for a lengthy period of time. The Center for Science in the Public Interest states that grilling can result in chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. PAHs form when fat drips on flames or hot coals; they float on smoke and can be inhaled, or settle on food. Although there's no proof these chemicals cause cancer in humans,12 of the 18 PAHs found in cooked food cause cancer in laboratory animals.

Respiratory Irritant

Charcoal can produce sooty dust and fumes that irritate the lungs and contribute to respiratory problems for individuals with allergies or asthma. Some charcoal briquettes are soaked in lighter fluid, which can act as an additional irritant. For a healthier alternative, consider barbecuing with a cleaner-burning fuel such as natural gas or propane, or switch to an outdoor electric grill.

Combustion Danger

It's important to watch out for fires that can start in packages of wet or discarded charcoal briquettes. Wet charcoal is a danger because it can spontaneously combust, so it should be discarded -- away from the house -- immediately. Spent charcoal can start a fire if there is still a live spark within the coals; dispose of spent charcoal in a metal container covered with a tight lid.