The Grapevine

Barbecue Smoke Compounds Absorbed By Your Skin Are Potentially Cancer-Causing

Nearly seven out of every 10 American adults own a grill or a smoker with more than half using their grill at least four times a month, according to the Barbecue Industry Association. But a new study details how the mere act can threaten your health, even if you are not eating grilled foods.

The study titled "Importance of Dermal Absorption of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons Derived from Barbecue Fumes" was published in Environmental Science & Technology on May 23.

Cooking beef, fish or other kinds of muscle meat at high temperatures can lead to the formation of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). According to the National Cancer Institute, PAHs can cause changes in our DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.

Lead researcher Dr. Eddy Y. Zeng, who is a professor at Jinan University in China, along with his colleagues reported that our skin may be an important pathway for these compounds to enter our body.

"Diet has been recognized as the most predominant exposure route, whereas inhalation is inevitable and constant. Thus, many studies have focused on dietary ingestion and inhalation in human health risk assessment," the authors wrote. "Dermal absorption of the general population to fumes and related health risk seem to have been largely overlooked."

As part of their study, 20 participants were divided into groups at an outdoor barbecue, leaving them exposed at varying degrees to food and smoke. The researchers proceeded to measure PAHs in gaseous and particulate samples, food items, and clothes, and in the urine samples of the participants.

As the researchers expected, diet accounted for the largest amount of PAH exposure. But in a surprising result, they found that skin was the second-highest exposure route for the compounds, even more so than inhalation.

The researchers highlighted this to be the first study to examine the impact of clothing on dermal exposure of barbecue fumes. While clothes may protect the bare skin from PAH exposure on a short-term basis, they noted a potential hazard once the clothing was saturated with barbecue smoke. 

Polluted clothes may become "a persistent exposure source" in certain circumstances, they stated, as the skin can absorb considerable amounts of PAHs from them. Washing clothes soon after leaving a grilling area was said to help in reducing exposure.

The research team acknowledged limitations in their study such as the small number of participants which did not allow them to examine factors such as age, gender, use of personal care products etc. They also hoped to improve methods of air sample collection and include the examination of blood samples in future studies.