Up In Smoke: How Barbecue Smoke can cause respiratory illness

South Africans love to Barbecue. We’ve even sealed this love with a National Holiday devoted to the practice, and celebrate the act of cooking food on an open fire as a cultural pastime that most of us share.
And we are not alone. In almost every part of the world, there is something ‘romantic’ about cooking outdoors on an open fire that makes us feel wholesome, healthful and “In Tune with Nature”.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Our favorite activity is severely hazardous to our health and the health of those around us. In future, we may find that sitting around the campfire being remembered as some quaint, antiquated practice that caused more harm than good, undertaken by ignorant people who put themselves at unnecessary risk.
Kind of like those unwitting folk who papered their dining rooms with arsenic green wall paper, stuffed their ceilings with fibrosis inducing asbestos insulation and gave cancer causing lead painted toys to their toddlers.
Along with the Radium Paint girls, the toxic practice of Barbecue may become a thing of the past.
It is logical that burning wood releases chemicals that the tree has been exposed to in its entire lifetime. What  is illogical is cooking your food with such highly concentrated chemical fuel – even though it tastes so good!
What’s even more ill considered is the effect of inhaling this toxic soup for hours on end, and now, new evidence shows that we also absorb wood smoke chemicals through our skin.
The Environmental Protection Agency of the USA tells us that arsenic, cyanide and other poisons are only some of the highly toxic substances released into the atmosphere in wood smoke.  Included in the list of carcinogens are benzene, formaldehyde, lead, cadmium and other disease causing heavy metals.
Benzene is a “Group 1” carcinogenic substance – which means there is enough evidence to prove it is directly linked with cancers.  Exposure to this toxin is a known cause of Leukemia.
Benzene exposure is also dangerous for foetal health. An Australian study suggested that there is more exposure to Benzene from using a wood burning stove than putting fuel in your car. The same study suggested that wood smoke exposure during pregnancy may be associated with increased risk of childhood leukemia.
While vehicle fuels and emissions contain high amounts of Benzene and Carbon Monoxide, Benzene exposure from wood smoke still carries greater risk, because burning wood releases more Benzene into the atmosphere of residential areas than gas guzzling cars and trucks, as this Finnish study showed.
“PAH-concentrations were often several times higher at the residential area than in the background. Benzene concentrations showed similar diurnal pattern as the use of wood and benzene/toluene ratios indicated that wood combustion is the most important source.”
The worst culprits for cancer causing wood smoke is using wood harvested from old orchards and areas of contaminated groundwater and rivers.  Many South Africans swear by their “wingerdstokke” (grape vine stumps) and apricot or peach stumps and branches from old orchards, without considering that this wood has usually been drenched in severe carcinogenic pesticides over several years.
When this wood is burned it releases highly toxic pesticide residue into the air  – and directly into food cooking over the coals – thus rendering organic grass fed chemical and hormone free meat rather redundant when it’s done over the coals.
Many developed nations have wood chipping programs in place to prevent release of carcinogens into the air through the burning of “Agricultural Waste” like orchards that have been cleared, but for South Africa and other countries where people are dependent on wood for cooking, heating and fuel, this would be viewed as a waste of resources.
We’ve long known that char-grilled foods can increase cancer risk, but new research shows that this is not just from consumption. Wood smoke is said to be one of the most carcinogenic form of atmospheric emissions, and standing around the “Barbie” or “Braai” is one of the most common forms of exposure.
Any person with asthma knows that these types of social invites are the worst kind to get, as those with asthma and hayfever are usually guaranteed to experience breathing difficulty and sensitivity around the barbecue.
At times like this, rescue medications are often over used to keep airways open – in spite of the continual exposure to the trigger – in this case the toxic smoke from burning wood.
Professor Buteyko said that the airways would close as a protective response to limit exposure to inhaled toxins and triggers.
Yet wood smoke is always associated with “clean, outdoor” pursuits and so most of the time, asthmatics and allergy sufferers feel like they are somehow “lesser beings” because they cannot always enjoy being enveloped by a chemical, carcinogenic fug without having to resort to using more medicine.
It is clear that the time for feeling embarrassed about limiting your exposure to wood smoke is over.
It is useful to think that the automatic broncho-constriction that people with breathing difficulties experience on exposure to environmental triggers is actually a protective measure that the body takes to reduce risk. Understanding that barbecue smoke contains a collection of the most harmful chemicals known to man can help asthmatics realize that there is no need to feel stupid about turning down barbecue invites.
But if the science is to be believed, everyone should be refusing to braai or attend barbecues and cookouts where wood will be burned. Those who believe they are okay because they don’t have “lung problems” would also be very mistaken.
In fact, we absorb more toxic substances from wood smoke through our skin that we do through our lungs, according to this recent study.  Skin exposure to carcinogenic substances is just as bad as breathing it in through your lungs, if not worse.
Wearing long sleeves makes no difference, because once the fabric is saturated with wood smoke, it is easily transferred to the skin and absorbed. Wood burning stoves are also a problem, as are any wood burning activities like smoking of meat and fish.
It seems that there is no escape from the toxicity of wood smoke, and that in the future, wood burning will be regarded with more care.
In the meantime, you may want to rethink those summertime pursuits and find other methods of heating your home without resorting to burning wood – especially if you have asthma.

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