Barbecue panic – transcript from the Today programme
A transcript from a radio item about the dangers of barbecues.
This is an abridged transcript of an item on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about barbecues from 28 July 2003. Presenter Edward Stourton interviewed Desmond Hammerton, a retired professor of marine biology about his fears that barbecues may be more dangerous than we think.
I think it is well-known that dioxins are one of the most toxic chemicals today and there is enormous public concern at any time that a public incinerator, or a commercial incinerator or a hospital incinerator is proposed, and there are always objections to that. But it has turned out that in France, research that was carried out by the French equivalent of the Friends of the Earth – it’s called Robin Des Bois, which is the French for ‘Robin Hood’ – their research has shown that in the course of a two-hour barbecue party, including the grilling of four steaks, followed by the cooking of four portions of turkey and finally the grilling of eight large sausages, this could release 12-22 nanograms of dioxins. Which is the equivalent to 120,000 to 220,000 cigarettes…
Gosh, put like that it sounds terrifying.
And they found that the average concentrations in the vicinity of a barbecue ranged from 0.6 to 0.7 nanograms per cubic metre, which is six to seven times the level authorised for public incinerators at the point of discharge from a chimney.
And what does all of this do to the food that you cook on barbecues?
Well, that’s another thing. The French Food Safety Agency, is also doing research. They haven’t looked into the question of the dioxins released. Their research is looking at the carcinogenic risks as a result of the carbonisation of fish and meat products as a result of cooking by barbecuing and they find that a lot of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are known to be carcinogenic, are incorporated in the food. But they haven’t given any detail of, they’re still studying, in some detail. But I think it is of more concern at the moment, bearing in mind the growing popularity of barbecues, which I always thought were a nice thing to do except I personally find the smoke extremely unpleasant to breathe,and I try to keep well away from these, to find that this actually produces these deadly dioxins, at these levels.
After a bit of conversation with a shocked Australian chef, the conversation turns again to the good professor…
Professor Hammerton, there isn’t any doubt is there about the quality of this research, is there? It does come, as you say, from the French equivalent of Friends of the Earth, who might ‘have a view’, as it were.
What is of interest is that I have seen nothing published in the British press. I think we need a sense of proportion about this. I served on a government committee which was setting standards for releases into the aquatic environment, and I think the same is true for releases into the atmosphere, that in general the policy was for toxic substances, if you found the lowest level at which they caused harm to fish life in waters and similar aquatic organisms, you set the safety level ten times lower, so there was a factor of ten in safety. But if human health was involved, it was a factor of one hundred times lower. So, it doesn’t mean to say that if you reach the level authorised for a discharge into the atmosphere that immediately above that is dangerous. It’s a big safety factor.
But I think we need to have a sense of proportion. So, just the odd barbecue during the summer is not going to have any effect but if you have a barbecue regularly, perhaps one or two times a week through the summer, and you all crowd round it and inhale the fumes, then maybe over ten or twenty years maybe that would do something. More research is required into this, and certainly I think warnings should be included on the sale of barbecues, advising people to keep away and not inhale the fumes.
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