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Barbecuing - summer fun for outdoors only

23/2017, 14.06.2017

German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment advises against the use of charcoal grills in indoor areas

The barbecue season has opened. To ensure that the fun of barbecuing does not result in impaired health, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is issuing several recommendations for the correct handling of charcoal-fired grills. If charcoal burns incompletely, carbon monoxide is formed which can lead to fatal poisonings. For this reason, the BfR advises against the use of charcoal barbecues in indoor areas. "There have been repeated reports of carbon monoxide poisoning while barbecuing in recent years," Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of the BfR explains. "Because the gas is odourless, it goes unnoticed and it can be easily underestimated for this reason".

If, due to bad weather for instance, a charcoal-fired grill is operated in an indoor area such as a garage, the poor air circulation leads to an increase in the carbon monoxide concentration in the air of the room. The gas is colourless, odourless and tasteless and spreads quickly in the air, where it is inhaled unnoticed. This hazard still exists, even if the garage door is open.

The German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) conducted tests in 2013 to determine carbon monoxide concentrations when barbecuing in indoor areas. After burning 800 grams of charcoal for two hours in a fume chamber with a volume of 19 cubic metres, comparable to that of a garage or living room, a toxic gas concentration of 3,000 ppm was detected. This concentration would result in unconsciousness in humans after being inhaled for only a few minutes.

Carbon monoxide is produced through the incomplete combustion of materials containing carbon, such as charcoal. Inside the body, the gas prevents the binding of oxygen to the red blood pigment haemoglobin, which means that the blood can no longer transport oxygen, which is of vital importance for sustaining life. This results in an undersupply of oxygen in the body tissue which in mild cases of poisoning causes headache, dizziness, tinnitus, distorted vision, vomiting, fatigue, muscle weakness and an accelerated heart rate. These symptoms can easily be misinterpreted, especially if alcohol has been consumed. With moderate and severe poisoning, shortness of breath and unconsciousness with shallow breathing occur in addition to the above symptoms. This life-threatening situation is treated by administering oxygen or by mechanical respiration.  Poisoned patients may develop a healthy appearing cherry-red skin colour. The consequence of prolonged respiratory is temporary or permanent brain damage.

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

The BfR is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, the institute has published a jubilee brochure (in German) which can be downloaded or ordered free of charge at http://www.bfr.bund.de/en/publication/brochures-61045.html.

This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.

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