WASHINGTON – Break out the buns and fire up the grill without guilt this Labor Day weekend.
Despite the smoke from grills, and the volatile organic compounds that can be released by charcoal lighter fluid, even environmentalists acknowledge that backyard barbecues do not cause a significant amount of air pollution.
“It would require every household in America barbecuing 14 hours a day every day of the year to pollute as much as factories and cars do,” said Mike Casey, a spokesman for the Washington-based Environmental Working Group.
Federal and state environmental agencies do, however, urge consumers to opt for gas or electric grills instead of charcoal, or to at least forgo the use of lighter fluid on days when the air quality is poor.
Lighter fluid releases volatile organic compounds that can contribute to the formation of ozone, said Richard McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. But it would be very difficult to calculate the cumulative effect of all of the grilling done in the United States, he said.
In 1997, when the Environmental Protection Agency set tougher standards for ozone and particulate matter pollution, many industry groups tried to convince the public that the new rules would hinder activities such as barbecuing, Casey said.
“Lobbyists and politicians in the past tried to convince the public that clean air restrictions would put their backyard grilling in jeopardy,” Casey said. That was never the case, he said, but noted that “changing what you grill with can help ease air pollution problems.”
But one merchant said environmental concerns don’t seem to be the top concern of consumers looking for a new grill.
“The reason we still sell charcoal is because people say it tastes better,” said Ross McClelland, manager of Watson’s Garden Center in Lutherville. “Many people have converted over to gas simply because of the convenience.”
McClelland said he has never heard of anyone taking air pollution into consideration when buying a grill.
Gas grill sales have been on the rise over the past four years, while charcoal grill sales have experienced a slight drop, according to statistics from the Barbecue Industry Association. McClelland said that may be because gas grilling is cleaner, faster and easier than charcoal grilling.
The Barbecue Industry Association said that 75 percent of American households own grills, and there were about 3.1 billion cookouts in the country last year.