Carcinogens in BBQ smoke absorbed more by skin than lungs

By monitoring a group of people enjoying a barbecue, Chinese researchers discover that the carcinogens in barbecue smoke are more likely to enter our bodies through our skin than our lungs.
A new study investigates how BBQ fumes enter our bodies.

Air pollution is a massive global problem, but, for most of us, there is little we can do to limit our exposure to poor quality air.

However, during the summer season, many of us willingly stand next to a device that pumps out harmful emissions: the humble barbecue (BBQ).

In the United States and farther afield, the BBQ is an incredibly popular outdoor event.

Family members and friends have been joining together to eat grilled foods since the invention of fire.

For instance, according to the authors of a recent study, on July 4, 2016, 87 percent of people in the U.S. used an outdoor grill.

BBQ fumes and the skin

Despite its popularity, outdoor grilling comes with many hazards. BBQ smoke contains a high level of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known to cause DNA mutations, respiratory disease, and even lung cancer.

Many people are well aware that breathing in the fumes of a BBQ is less than ideal, and many of us will also know that eating grilled foods can have negative consequences for our health.

Both the inhalation and consumption of grilled foods have received a fair amount of research. However, according to a new study, PAH absorption through the skin might be an equally significant issue — and one that has mostly been overlooked.

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Researchers at Jinan University in China, led by Eddy Y. Zeng, set out to quantify exactly how much PAH passes through the skin of someone at a BBQ. Their results were published recently in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

To investigate, the researchers attended a BBQ in Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, China.

They divided 20 revelers into three groups: the first was exposed to fumes, food, and skin contact; the second was exposed to just fumes and skin contact; and those in the third only experienced skin exposure (they wore hoods and masks, breathing compressed air throughout the event).

Participants provided four urine samples: 17 hours before the BBQ, on the morning of the event, right before it began, and 35 hours after the event.

Skin deep

The authors concluded that consuming grilled food accounted for the majority of PAH absorbed by the body. Skin came second and inhalation came third. They believe that oils produced during a BBQ might ease the passage of PAHs through the skin.

So, even if an individual wore a protective mask and steered clear of grilled BBQ foods, they might still absorb high levels of PAHs.

It is also worth noting that clothing did not necessarily protect BBQ-goers. Though, initially, clothing affords some protection, once it is fully saturated by BBQ smoke chemicals, clothing may, in fact, assist the passage of PAHs through the skin. The authors suggest washing clothes as soon as possible to minimize exposure.

We are not likely to reduce our BBQ activity any time soon. So, the advice appears to be: minimize grilled food intake, change and wash smoke-exposed clothes as soon as you can, and, wherever possible, don’t stand too close to the grill.

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