Even outdoor barbecuing pours significant pollution into the air


July 10, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Knock! Knock! Knock! It's the environmental police! Open up in the name of the Earth! Are you the owner of the house, ma'am? We have a report that someone at this address was observed lighting a barbecue with a controlled substance. Stand back -- we're comin' in.

In Southern California, where it's barbecue weather all year round, people do a lot of grilling out. Like their compatriots in other states, most of them light their fires in the old tried-and-true method: Scrape the coals up into a little pyramid, douse them liberally with a commercial, petroleum-derived, volatile organic compound, throw down a lit match and jump away.

The average emissions from charcoal lighter fluid squirted over coals in the four counties that make up greater Los Angeles is 2.5 tons of reactive hydrocarbons a day. On a hot summer's Sunday, Los Angeles' charcoal lighters can produce up to

fours tons of hydrocarbons a day. That is slightly more than twice the hydrocarbon pollution emitted by an oil refinery on any given day.

Reactive hydrocarbons are one of the principal ingredients of a deadly Los Angeles specialty -- smog. But though L.A. may have the most famous smog, it isn't the only city plagued with this dangerous form of pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency lists 38 cities that failed to comply with federal air quality standards for ozone, to which hydrocarbons contribute, in 1989.

Chances are, your city made the list.

If Los Angeles leads the nation in smog, it should also be noted that the city leads the nation in efforts to curtail the stuff. Which brings us back to lighter fluid. As part of its clean-air efforts, California's Air Quality Board has ordered makers of charcoal-lighter fluid to formulate a cleaner-burning product by 1992 or face having their products banned from stores.

Outraged barbecue-industry representatives are quick to point out that it makes much more sense to go after the biggies -- cars, for example, which emit hydrocarbons in the hundreds of tons -- than to hound relatively small contributors such as lighter fluid.

They are right, of course. Stop driving so much. Take the bus. Car-pool. Walk. Get a bike. Live closer to your job, your day-care center and your mother.

But they are also wrong. Cleaning up air pollution is proving to be a tricky, expensive and disheartening

task. We must cut emissions every way we can. Changing our barbecuing practices is a very small price to pay, especially because you can save money and still barbecue just as often.

Here are some alternatives recommended by the California Air Quality Board:

* A charcoal chimney. This is a metal cone with handles. Stuff newspaper in the bottom, up to four pounds of coals in the top. Light the paper with a match, wait 15 minutes and dump your red hot coals onto the


* An electric starter. These look like a curling iron from hell. They are inexpensive and should last several grilling seasons.

* A propane grill. Several companies make these, in various sizes. You can buy portable ones for car camping or picnicking.

* A natural gas grill. These are for you very serious barbecuers. Have one installed on your patio. Consumer Reports' July issue rates them.

* Any of several fire-starting

products, including gels, treated wood chips, long-burning safety matches and paraffin doodads.

Shop around at hardware, drug, grocery and general stores to find the alternative that suits you. Let your fingers do the walking, of course, so that you don't make up for saved barbecue emissions in spent gasoline emissions. And then, well, bon appetit.

(Have a question? Write me at P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican B St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.)

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