Off-the-Job Safety: Preventing Problems at Your Fourth of July Backyard Barbecue

Barbecuing is one of America’s favorite pastimes, especially during Fourth of July weekend. However, it’s hard to believe that these festivities can cause food poisoning, lead to cancer and start home fires!

An April 2006 presentation at the American Association for Cancer Research showed that when PhIP, a barbecue/char chemical, was added to rats’ food, they developed cancerous changes in their intestines, spleens and prostates within 4 weeks. HCAs (heterocyclic amines) also are produced when meat is charred. This compound can increase the risk of breast, stomach, colon and prostate cancer. PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are produced by smoking fat from chicken, fish or meat and can damage lung, liver, skin and kidney tissue.

ChicagoHealers.com Dr. Martha Howard, M.D., provides the following tips for staying safe from both food poisoning and cancer-causing agents during summer grilling:

  • Clean the grill: get rid of the old fats left over from previous meals.
  • Avoid petroleum starters for charcoal: If you use charcoal, use a wood starter and stack your charcoal up in a 2 lb metal can with the ends cut off. Lift off the can with tongs and spread out the coals when they are well started.
  • Proper timing: Avoid a time gap between opening the valve and starting the grill.
  • Wash your hands: Keep your hands clean and use separate plates and cutting boards for raw and cooked meats. Be sure to wash hands again before putting on long, heat-proof barbecue gloves.
  • Trim meat: Trim most of the fat from meat; less fat means fewer PAHs.
  • Use marinades: This protects the meat from charring. Put the marinade on, and refrigerate until use. Don’t let meat sit out.
  • Pre-cooking: Use pre-cooking prior to grilling, especially for items like raw brats. Avoid taking burgers, chicken or other meats directly from the freezer to the grill.
  • Cutting techniques: Cut meat and chicken into smaller pieces so they cook through.
  • Flipping: Turn down the fire, and turn your burgers, steaks, chops or chicken often, so they cook through, and come out golden brown.
  • Meat thermometer: If you are cooking a thicker portion of meat or chicken, use a meat thermometer and remember these temperatures: Chicken 165 degrees; hamburger 160 degrees; pork 150 degrees; hot dogs 140 degrees; steak 145 degrees for medium rare and 160 degrees for medium.
  • Cleaning up: At the end of the barbecue, be sure to put out your charcoal completely, and if you are using propane, be sure the valve is turned off.

And when you’re firing up that barbecue, State Farm wants to remind you to have a fire extinguisher on hand. According to recent National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) data, more than 18,600 patients are seen in the emergency room as a result of injuries involving grills. Children under age five accounted for almost one-quarter of those injuries. Adults age 20-35 had the second-most incidents.

Case in point, Illinois Wesleyan University senior Ted Richards. After a close call while grilling, Richards resolved to locate his fire extinguisher and learn how to use it.

"I was taking potatoes off the grill and some of the olive oil dripped down," said Richards. "Next thing I knew, flames were shooting up towards my face." It was at that moment Ted realized he wasn't sure if there was a fire extinguisher in his house. If there was, he had never used one.

Fire extinguishers are a life- and property-saving tool but only if used properly. Whether you're grilling outdoors, lighting sparklers or camping, having a fire extinguisher available and knowing how to use it could be the difference between an enjoyable holiday weekend and a disastrous one. According to NFPA:

  • Locate the fire extinguisher in your house. It is recommended to have at least one fire extinguisher on each floor of your home and in plain sight. The most important places to have a fire extinguisher are in areas that are most susceptible to fire – the kitchen and the garage.
  • Inspect the fire extinguisher to ensure that it is fully charged and operational. It is recommended that you inspect your extinguishers on a monthly basis. A professional fire equipment supplier or fire department periodically should inspect the extinguishers to verify they still are operational.
  • Make sure you know what type of fire extinguisher is in your home. All household extinguishers are classified on the label to indicate which types of fires you can use them on.
  • Read the instructions that come with the fire extinguisher and become familiar with its parts and operation before a fire breaks out.
  • Contact your fire department to see if they offer hands-on training.
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