Question of the Week

May 16, 2005


Memorial Day will be here soon, grilling season has begun, and, in much of the country, an evening walk around the neighborhood at dinner time is now accented with the aroma of food on the grill.

"Gas and charcoal BBQ cooking grills have become an essential part of our lifestyle. Unfortunately, cooking on gas and charcoal grills can also be dangerous. National statistics show that gas and charcoal grills have been indicated in an annual average of 1,500 structure fires and 4,800 outdoor grill fires at residential properties. As with other types of cooking devices, the leading causes of structure fires involving charcoal-fueled grills are unattended cooking and placing combustibles too close to heat. In structure fires, the first items ignited are most commonly the exterior trim and wall coverings. The leading cause of gas-grill fires is attributed to failure, leaks or breaks in the gas lines of the equipment. With a little extra precaution, you can be sure that the sizzle of summerdoesn't turn into an uncontrolled fire."

No one wants a relaxing barbecue to turn into an uncontrolled fire that causes injuries or property damage.

"Common sense and planning will prevent injuries.
* Always read the owners manual ...
* Barbecue grills are designed for outdoor use only. Never barbecue in your trailer, tent, house, garage, or any enclosed area because carbon monoxide may accumulate and kill you.
* Set up grill in an open area away from buildings, overhead combustible surfaces, dry leaves or brush. ...
* When using a barbecue grill be sure all parts of the unit are firmly in place and the grill is stable.
* Should electrically operated accessories (i.e. rotisseries, etc.) be used, be sure they are properly grounded in accordance with local codes. Electrical cords
should be placed away from walkways.
* Use long-handled barbecue utensils to avoid burns and splatters.
* Wear clothing that does not have hanging shirt tails, frills or apron strings, and use flame retardant mitts when adjusting hot vents."

Even if all precautions are taken, grills can still be a bit unpredictable at times. It is good to have a plan ahead of time, in case a fire does start to flare:

"* To put out flare-ups, either raise the grid the food is on, or spread the coals out, or adjust the controls to lower the temperature. ...
* Use baking soda to control a grease fire and have a fire extinguisher handy. A bucket of sand or a garden hose should be near if you don't have a commercial extinguisher."

What kind of grill (or fire pit) will you be using? Various fuels, different locations, even the ways that the grills are constructed (and how long they have been idle) all play a role in what you need to know to safely grill.

"Liquid petroleum (LP) gas or propane, used in gas grills, is highly flammable. Each year about 30 people are injured as a result of gas grill fires and explosions. Many of these fires and explosions occur when consumers first use a grill that has been left idle for a period of time or just after refilling and reattaching the grill's gas container."

There are common sense precautions, and then there are laws and codes specific to different states, counties, or even cities. Fairly universal guidelines include:

"* LP [Liquid Propane] Grills are not permitted inside or on balconies above the first floor of any building or structure used for habitation.
* Always locate a barbecue away from any combustible wall.
* Set up grill in an open area away from buildings, dry leaves or brush. Be aware of the wind blowing sparks.
* Propane and charcoal BBQ grills must only be used outdoors. If used indoors, or in any enclosed spaces, such as tents, they pose both a fire hazard and the risk of exposing occupants to toxic gases and potential asphyxiation. ..."

Some are of these "tips" are laws; some are guidelines; all are there to keep people safe.

"* NEVER leave children or pets unattended near a hot grill.
* Place the grill a safe distance from lawn games, play areas and foot traffic.
* Declare the entire grill area a "kid-free zone" until the grill has completely cooled off."

When starting, or putting out, the fire, it is best not to be in a rush. Feeling pressured by time makes it all the more tempting to cut corners and try things that could be potentially dangerous.

"* Never add starter fluid once a fire has already started. Fire can follow the stream of fluid back into the container, potentially causing an explosion and scattering the flaming liquid.
* Always use great care when disposing of ashes. They may contain live coals, which can start a fire. Wet ashes thoroughly before emptying the barbecue."

Finally, when tempted to ignore the rules "just this once," it can often help to know why the rules are as they are. Knowing WHY something is potentially dangerous can provide a more persuasive argument than just knowing THAT something is potentially dangerous.

"Charcoal produces carbon monoxide (CO) when it is burned. CO is a colorless, odorless gas that can accumulate to toxic levels in closed environments. Each year about 30 people die and 100 are injured as a result of CO fumes from charcoal grills and hibachis used inside. ...
* Never burn charcoal inside of homes, vehicles, tents, or campers. Charcoal should never be used indoors, even if ventilation is provided.
* Since charcoal produces CO fumes until the charcoal is completely extinguished, do not store the grill indoors with freshly used coals."

Questions of the Week:
When grilling, what "common sense" guidelines do people need to follow? What guidelines might be harder to follow -- or even remember? What is the benefit of knowing the reasons the laws and guidelines were created? What information do people need before they can safely grill? What emergency supplies should be on hand before the fire is even lit? Where can you safely grill near your home or in your area? What are the rules and regulations about grilling where you live? Are there certain times of year when fire risk is too high for grilling to be allowed at all?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

[email protected]
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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