There’s nothing nicer than getting together with friends and family to cook your favorite foods over a grill. This is a primal ritual than goes back thousands of years across all cultures. But most people don’t know that grilling meat means exposure to carcinogenic chemicals.

Whenever you grill meat over a hot flame you will create hazardous compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Some of those nasty chemicals may be left over on the grill and that is why proper cleaning is critical. But how you clean your grill and then how you cook your meat can make a tremendous difference. That’s why we have gathered some simple solutions to make barbecuing safer this summer.

CLEANING THE GRILL

Most grillmeisters want to make this part of the process quick and easy so they can get down to the serious business of barbecuing. The usual approach is to run a metal brush over the grill a few times to remove most of the left overs from the last barbecue. Rarely does anyone look closely to see whether a) the gunk has actually been removed effectively and b) are there any metal wires left on the grill that could end up in the food and eventually swallowed. The CDC reported a couple of years ago about “Injuries from Ingestion of Wire Bristles from Grill-Cleaning Brushes”:

“Foreign object ingestion is a common reason for visiting an emergency department (ED), particularly for children. In recent years, internal injuries have been reported following unintentional ingestions of wire grill-cleaning brush bristles by both children and adults…This report describes a series of six more cases identified at the same hospital system during March 2011-June 2012. The six patients ranged in age from 31 to 64 years; five were men. Like the patients in the previous series, all six reported outdoor residential food grilling and use of commercially available wire grill-cleaning brushes. The severity of injury ranged from puncture of the soft tissues of the neck, causing severe pain on swallowing, to perforation of the gastrointestinal tract requiring emergent surgery…Before cooking, persons should examine the grill surface carefully for the presence of bristles that might have dislodged from the grill brush and could embed in cooked food. Alternative residential grill-cleaning methods or products might be considered.”

So, how can you clean a grill effectively without leaving behind tiny metal wires that could puncture the neck or perforate the GI tract? One suggestion is to “Go Wireless.” You can swipe a cut onion over the hot grate. It is supposed to clean off the grease and grime.

You could also use a nylon bristle brush to clean a cool grill without leaving metal wires behind.

If you are going to a camp ground with those heavy-duty built-in grills that have round grates, consider “Grillfloss.” This device allows you to clean both the top and bottom of the metal rods.

Of course there is always good old-fashioned hand scrubbing. It will require removing the grates from your grill. Buy a dish-washing scrubber and use a little detergent to get the grime, grease and gunk off your grill. Then rinse the grate thoroughly and throw out the scrubber.

MEAT PREPARATION

Once your grill is clean, you are almost ready to barbecue. But wait, you need to prepare your meat beforehand if you want to reduce exposure to HCA carcinogens. There is a magnificent article published in the journal Mutagenesis (Nov. 2004). You can read the full text of this article at this link. In a nutshell, here are the recommendations from these scientists:

  • Select lean cuts of meat or trim away as much fat as possible
  • Marinate your meat or fish before cooking. The best marinades contain some of the following ingredients: onions, garlic, rosemary, extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice or yogurt.
  • Microwave briefly before grilling. Discard the juice that collects in the bottom of the container. Those juices cause mischief. Getting rid of them dramatically reduces the formation of HCA mutagens.
  • Use low heat. The higher the heat and the more flames, the greater the likelihood of carcinogens forming. Flip often. That way you reduce the intensity of the heat on the surface of the meat, chicken or fish.

Last step, enjoy the camaraderie of family and friends. After all, that is the best part of the experience.

 Share your own tips in the comment section below and listen to our radio show about Summertime Remedies for Safe Grilling and Easing Bites, Burns, Stings and Scratches.

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  1. Jimmy
    Reply

    I use a copper scouring pad. Very cheap, it does the job and leaves no bristle. I cleaned the pad with soap and hot water. I also use a copper pad to clean my cast iron cookware.

  2. PC
    Reply

    would nylon bristle pieces cause a problem also if swallowed—maybe a bit less than a metal bristle, but still a problem?

  3. william w.
    Reply

    I saw a picture yesterday of a man who owned a BBQ cafe holding a length of pork ribs. The outside was totally black. My understanding is that when black occurs you are getting high levels of carcinogens. Also, high heat creates nitrates from nitrites, so bacon, as one example, should always be cooked on low heat. Good article. bill wallace

  4. SP
    Reply

    Thanks for the balanced reply. I couldn’t agree more. We grilled a well marbled steak last night searing it on each side to brown and seal it and then cooking it briefly over lower heat to bring it to 140 degrees internal temperature. It was delicious, and I’m sure the carcinogens added to the flavor. How often do we do this? Once or twice a year, maybe. We grill burgers and chicken during the summer, but not more than a couple of times per month. So I’m sure our total overall exposure to barbecue carcinogens isn’t very high. Frankly, I’m tired of the constant barrage of information about all the things that can hurt me. There is just too much to worry about.

  5. pp
    Reply

    An easy way to clean a grill is after it’s cooled, put a wet paper towel soaked with detergent on it and let it soak overnight. The next day just wipe off all the crud.–no scraping and no fuss.

  6. G.W.
    Reply

    Try using the brush (I use stainless steel) and dipping it in water then running it over the hot grill. The water flashes to steam and blows the crud off and really “sterilizes” the grill surface. Do I have to say, “Remember to keep your hands and face away from hot steam.”? You have to re-dip the brush regularly but it is a whole lot easier than cleaning a cruddy, cold grill surface. A simple inspection for bristles is good enough or squirt the surface down with a bottle of water to rinse and drain the drip pan.
    Flipping the meat constantly might be good for not forming carcinogens but it messes with the heat-sealed meat surface and allows internal juices to flow out so the meat can get dry. Also never use a fork to turn meat as it punches holes in the seared surface and lets the juices out.
    Try brining the meat (especially chicken but even steaks) a bit before putting on the grill to make the meat really tender. Lean cuts of meat makes for a tough steak. It’s the fat marbling in the tissue that makes the meat tender. You don’t need or have to cook large chunks of fat, but evenly spaced fat marbling makes for a great piece of grilled meat.
    Really, the risk of getting cancer from the relatively small amount of grilled food we eat today surely is very low. We’re not cave men anymore eating multi-pounds of charred mega-fauna a day. We’d be better served to spend our worry capital elsewhere.

  7. harold jitschak bueno de mesquita
    Reply

    Thanks for some nice tips.
    I am not a barbecuer………..but still.
    I suppose [was not there...] that since the days of the biblical Noach [when meat became allowed] people have been roasting their meat.
    Probably this was done with one of the variations [marinades] as described in the mail.
    The whole story of: hazardous compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs)…….[ as much as this may have been "proven"][seem to me a relative new scientific fad and I would leave it for what it is.
    The same goes for olive oil.
    Since thousand of years this oil has been used in Israel [commanded by the Creator to the Cohanim] and the middle east at least for cooking and frying and now “nutritional philosophy” advises not to cook or fry with olive oil.
    Probably the scientists need here new “glasses” to appreciate traditional wisdom
    and not to err in their scientific -ever changing- opinions.
    So if you are a barbecuer enjoy your portion but realize that we should/may eat meat only for health-reasons and not out of pure “lust”.

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