As the holiday makers are getting ready to celebrate their festive season fulfilling gastronomic delights with barbequed food in Nuwara Eliya and other hill country destinations, the Daily Mirror warns such holidaymakers among its readers of the dangerous even deadly consequences they could face if they are not sufficiently careful.
The aroma and tangy flavour of barbecued food is a gastronomic delight for many and a unique culinary art that employs the technique of char grilling food. Nevertheless, the adverse health consequences of barbecued food including the toxic elements that emanate from a heated barbecue grill may not be a general topic discussed daily in culinary circles or among one’s family or friends. Speaking to Daily Mirror , Consultant Physician and Head of the Toxicology and National Poisons Information Centre at the National Hospital of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Dr. Waruna Gunathilake shared his expert opinion with us concerning the subject, in an attempt to raise awareness on the risks of using barbecue grills as heaters to warm up rooms during the cold season. He also shed more light on the negative health implications of consuming barbecued food on a regular basis.
How toxic is a heated barbecue grill?
Dr. Gunathilake said that for the last couple of years it had been observed that at least one or two individuals died during the festive season in Nuwara Eliya. He said the main reason behind these deaths was the use of barbecue grills used to warm up their rooms during the excessive cold weather in Nuwara Eliya; especially during the festive period. He said the deaths were triggered due to barbecue grill-induced carbon monoxide emission inside rooms.
“We breathe oxygen and when we barbecue food, we tend to make use of either coal or wood for grilling purposes. Although barbecuing food should be an outdoor practice, some tend to grill food indoors as well. If the room is not well-ventilated and if all doors and windows are shut while the barbecue grill is being heated, then it should be noted that an incomplete combustion will occur during the heating process. The toxic gas that emanates from the grill is known as carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is harmful to breathe. When we inhale the toxic air, it is carbon monoxide that binds with hemoglobin instead of oxygen and finally the individual would die due to lack of oxygen. When oxygen is not transferred to the tissues, the lack of oxygen in an individual’s body will eventually lead to death.
However, such situations are a hundred percent preventable because such cases take place due to mere negligence and lack of awareness on the danger of using barbecue grills in homes. Two months ago, a young couple died after attending a barbecue party held outdoors. They had taken the barbecue grill into their room after the barbecue party in order to warm up the room. When the grill started emanating room heat, the couple died following the inhalation of carbon monoxide. It should be noted that carbon monoxide, which is a toxic gas, is generally released into the air when coal is charred” Dr. Gunathilake added.
Symptoms following the inhalation of carbon monoxide may include nausea, headaches, dizziness, a sense of weakness, drowsiness, unconsciousness and in the worst scenario, it could also lead to death. It is important to immediately vacate the room and move to a ventilated area in case the air is poisoned with carbon monoxide. Moreover, all doors and windows should be left open for good ventilation if one suspects the air is contaminated with the gas. In the event someone has inhaled the toxic gas, the patient should be immediately rushed to hospital.
Awareness programme during the festive season
According to Dr. Gunathilake, around four hundred registered hotels, guest houses and houses for rent are available in Nuwara Eliya. During the festive season in April, most houses are given on rent and very often, these houses may lack additional facilities such as a heater which is a prerequisite during the cold season. This is one of the main reasons why people are resorting to unsafe modes of warming up their rooms with equipment such as a barbecue grill. Therefore, the Regional Director of Health Services – Nuwara Eliya in collaboration with the National Poisons and Information Centre - National Hospital of Sri Lanka will be carrying out a door-to-door awareness programme in the Nuwara Eliya district this month based on the prevention of inhaling the toxic carbon monoxide during the festive eve and why it is important to take precautions when using barbecue grills.
“According to the international satellite AccuWeather, we have observed the temperature chart for the month of April in Nuwara Eliya which is a very comprehensive and accurate weather chart. People can make use of this online weather chart to get accurate forecasts about the weather before planning their vacation to any given destination. It also forecasts the weather for Nuwara Eliya, including many other parts of the country more accurately. During the month of April, the daytime temperature would be between 22 – 24 Celsius and the night temperature would range between 12 – 13 Celsius. Therefore, we request the general public to take adequate measures to ensure that their rented rooms or hotel rooms have a room heater in case they are planning on spending the holiday in Nuwara Eliya or any other similar destination with prevailing cold weather,” he said.
Moreover, he added that in foreign countries, tourist hotels maintained a guideline for visitors as well as the owners of the premises concerning the precautions that should be taken in the hotel premises in the event an emergency occurred. “Unfortunately, such guidelines are not available in Sri Lanka and even if they do exist, they are not properly followed by locals. In foreign countries, it has been made compulsory that barbecue grilling should be always done outdoor and never as an indoor activity. Hoteliers in Sri Lanka should also learn to maintain such stringent standards while ensuring that tourists are not allowed to take their grilling equipment into their rooms for heating purposes. Tourists should also ensure that the rooms are well-equipped with room heaters when looking for a room during the holiday season” Dr. Gunathilake added.
Is barbecuing meat a healthy food option?
Stressing on the need to warn people about healthy cooking tips as health professionals, Dr. Gunathilake pointed out the adverse health consequences of consuming barbecued meat. In the case of barbecuing meat, it must be noted that the meat contains both flesh as well as fat. During the process of grilling, the meat is exposed to direct heat. According to Dr. Gunathilake, when exposed to direct heat, the fat component in the meat melts to a point until it changes its molecular nature. The chemicals that result are carcinogens that can form cancer in humans.
The health risks of char-boiling and gas grilling are well documented in medical literature. He said pork and beef contained very high levels of fat which when charred, resulted in chemically modifying the fat component in the meat. This is a harmful chemical conversion which is known as the formation of Heterocyclic Amines (HAs). It is important to maintain the intake of HAs in our diet at a very minimum rate in order to avoid the potential of being vulnerable to cancer.
There are several precautionary methods that could be employed for safe food grilling. It is always better to ensure that the meat is not exposed to a direct heat in the process of grilling since such procedures could help in decreasing the level of HA formation to a certain extent. It is also advisable to slightly pre-cook the meat in the oven or stove before grilling it. Using lean cuts for grilling is another method to boycott the consumption of excess fat in meat. Marinating or soaking the meat with sauces containing sugar such as barbecue sauce or commercial tomato/ ketchup should be avoided as much as possible. This is mainly because when there is a high sugar level in the meat, the HAs level in the meat will also increase highly. Also, he pointed out that using oil that has a high smoke point such as avocado or high-oleic safflower oil to coat the meat prior to grilling would help avoid the oxidative damage that could occur in the oil itself.
According to medical literature, it has also been proven that antioxidant-containing foods such as citrus fruits, green tea and rosemary have the ability to lower HA levels in grilled food. It is better to use such ingredients for marinade purposes before grilling. Avoid using barbecue grills inside rooms and avoid charring as much as possible. Barbecues should always be done as an outdoor activity. These are the precautionary tips that help reduce HA formation in barbecued food. It is important that the general public take these health tips into serious account while also limiting the intake of barbecued food to a certain extent in order to lead a healthy life.