Barbecuers Beware: Exposing Skin to Smoke Poses Greater Cancer Risk Than Breathing It

Actually eating barbecued meat is the greatest hazard, but Chinese study shows bystanders in cookout-plagued Israeli beaches and parks should also keep their distance

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Bon appetit: Barbecue on Independence Day, Gan Sacher Jerusalem, 2017
Independence Day barbecue, Gan Sacher, Jerusalem, 2017: Hard to believe that breathing that smoke isn't the biggest problem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The smell of burning meat has pervaded the Holy Land for eons, from prehistoric ape-men grilling turtles hundreds of thousands of years ago, to the devout sacrificing animals, to modern Israelis barbecuing meat in every park and beach to mark every occasion from Independence Day to their dog's birthday. Now, to general astonishment, a Chinese study published in Nature reports that exposing skin to the smoke is more hazardous to our health than breathing it.

In other words, staying upwind from the fire will help, but not for the reason you thought.

Note that the Number 1 source of carcinogens associated with barbecuing meat is eating it, not breathing next to it or bathing in barbecue smoke. Also, make no mistake: exposure to smoke from burning meat or other organic stuffs remains firmly associated with lung disease.

The surprise is that the skin, not lungs, proved to be the dominant exposure route to the carcinogenic elements in barbecue smoke, known as small polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Among other things this means that innocent bystanders not partaking of the meal will also be affected, but chiefly through their skin, not lungs.

One might think that long sleeves and ankle-length trousers would solve the problem, though one doesn't always feel like being covered head to toe in the blistering Israeli heat of summer. Or spring or autumn.

Not so, say the researchers headed by Jia-Yong Lao from Jinan University, Guangzhou. They researchers found that clothing doesn't fully protect people from this exposure. For the first few minutes, it may – but then the cloth becomes suffused with smoke and from that point, it's going into your skin.

For what it's worth, the researchers advise washing your clothes as soon as possible after the barbecue, assuming you don't actually want to smell like a hamburger.

A lot of Israelis barbecue meat on Independence DayCredit: \ Moti Milrod

How much of a problem is this in Israel? Well, in 2014, according to a 2016 OECD report, Israel ranked 4th in the world for meat consumption with86 kilos of meat per capita. Australia was first, followed by the United States and Argentina

That definition of meat includes chicken, which Israelis dote on, and also pork, which most Israelis do not dote on. But whatever the source of the meat, Israelis love to stick it on the barbecue. The news that they're absorbing cancer-causing agents through their skin rather than their lungs seems unlikely to change the national habit, especially given the national penchant for smoking cigarettes, which has even worse effects.

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