A popular summer pastime, barbecues are in full swing in Canada – but is your grill putting you and others at risk?
With more people gathering in backyards and parks this year after two seasons of COVID-19 restrictions, experts say Canadians shouldn’t take the impact on their health and environment lightly .
“It poses a great danger and risk to our health because there are certain rules that people don’t follow when barbecuing,” said Dr. Marc Jeschke, burns program director at Hamilton Health Sciences.
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Burns, smoke inhalation and other barbecue-related injuries typically increase over the summer starting in May, doctors told Global News.
“There is a seasonality to a lot of fire injuries specifically related to barbecues that tend to happen when the weather starts to improve in Canada,” said Dr. Shahriar Sharokhi, surgeon at Ross Tilley Burn Center (RTBC) from Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.
Jeschke said there was a “clear peak” in the summer, with patients suffering significant burns to their faces and upper bodies.
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Between 2005 and 2014, cooking equipment, including but not limited to barbecues, grills and portable heaters, was the leading source of ignition in residential fires, contributing to a third of all incidents, according to the latest statistics from Statistics Canada.
In the United States, grills, hibachis and barbecues were involved in an average of 10,600 home fires per year between 2014 and 2018, according to National Fire Protection Association 2020 Report.
These resulted in 10 civilian deaths, 160 injuries and $149 million in direct property damage annually, according to the NFPA report.
In Toronto, barbecue fires increased last year and so far in 2022, 12 have been reported according to the city’s latest figures shared with Global News.
Jeschke said the danger is that burns and inhalation can happen “very, very quickly”, so there is less time to react.
“Unfortunately there is a complete underestimation of barbecue and the state of fire and how to deal with barbecues…so we see a lot of patients who have significant injuries,” he said .
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Across Canada, there are certain restrictions on where people can barbecue.
In Vancouver, for example, no barbecues are allowed on sandy beaches.
When used where permitted, a barbecue must be 75cm above the ground and if there is an extreme fire warning, charcoal cannot be used – only propane is permitted, according to the Vancouver Fire Department.
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In Edmontonsolid fuel barbecues are prohibited in the apartment.
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Meanwhile, in Toronto parks, a permit is required for portable barbecues. Only charcoal or briquettes are authorized in permanently fixed barbecues, according to city code.
Along with personal risks, there are environmental impacts – and the type of grill you use can make a difference.
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Grills fueled by natural gas or wood pellets release a considerable amount of carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change, said Rebecca Saari, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Waterloo.
A wood pelletizer has less impact on the global carbon cycle and global warming since it is a renewable fuel, but it will still emit fine particles, smoke, soot and other gases harmful to the environment, she said.
“We typically release additional non-renewable carbon into our atmosphere, which will heat up our Earth system.”
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Barbecue smoke is a direct emission of fine particles into the air, leading to “more deaths worldwide than any other environmental exposure,” Saari told Global News.
A 2021 study published in Science Direct estimates that a global total of 10.2 million premature deaths each year are attributable to the fossil fuel component of fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
“Wood burning releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can also lead to the formation of ozone, which is the second most harmful outdoor pollutant,” after particulate matter, she said.
“It may not seem like much to use our barbecue (in) our homes, but they can add up.”
Although barbecue fires can affect anyone, some people are at increased risk of exposure to emissions, Saari said. These include children, the elderly, and people with underlying conditions such as heart disease or respiratory disease.
According to experts, barbecues should only be done outdoors in a well-ventilated area and not in enclosed indoor spaces, such as garages and sheds.
The general rule is to place the barbecue at least three meters from your house or other structures and away from eaves and overhanging branches.
“As a general rule, you don’t want to have barbecues near flammable things,” like trees, brush or bushes, Shahrokhi said.
“A lot of us tend to put our barbecues near our fences. That’s a huge danger,” he added.
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Frequent cleaning is also important, Shahroki said, because material that accumulates in the grill can catch fire.
He also advised checking for gas leaks before installing the grill.
Accelerators to speed up the cooking time can create a huge fireball, which is why their use is not recommended.
“You just have to be alert, you have to be patient with the fires, and you have to use common sense,” Shahrokhi said.
Edmonton Fire and Rescue Service recommends wearing tight-fitting, short-sleeved clothing when cooking, as loose clothing can catch fire easily.
Here are some other tips from the Canadian government, protect yourself during barbecue season:
- Never leave a lit grill unattended
- Use long-handled cooking utensils and heat-resistant mitts to reduce the risk of burns
- Keep children and pets away from the barbecue
- Keep a portable residential fire extinguisher nearby
- If you smell gas while cooking, get away from the grill immediately and call 911.
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