Q: I love to grill, but I’ve heard that barbecues can be bad for air quality and health. Which are better for the environment: charcoal grills or gas?

A: Who doesn’t love the smoky taste of a burger grilled over charcoal? But gas grills are cleaner burning, “hands down,” says Rollin Sachs, an environmental scientist who works on the air quality division for the Public Health Department in Kansas City, Kansas, the self-proclaimed barbeque capital of the world. Gas grills—usually fueled by propane or natural gas—do use a non-renewable resource, petroleum, and emit carbon dioxide, but are more efficient overall. Burning charcoal emits both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as well as particulates, which can worsen heart and lung problems.

Not only that, as meat sizzles over charcoal and juice drips onto the coals, the flares create compounds that have been linked to cancer, which billow up and land on your food. Plus using lighter fluid can also produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs). On hot, sunny days, these compounds contribute to smog. To top it off, briquettes are often composed of coal dust, sodium nitrate, starch, limestone and borax. Bottom line is, if you’re looking for the most eco alternative, grill with gas.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

To grill, or not to grill
Age-old dilemma: Gas or charcoal?