As the weather heats up and the allure of grilling returns, it is important to consider some of the potential health risks. One of the great joys of my life is “manning” the grill – beer in hand, wafting smoke rising through the air, a delicious anticipation building. It seems worth the risk of consuming carcinogens present in the smoke and char. I’ve taken to grilling on aluminum foil as the iron griddle deteriorates, black gunk accumulates, and it generally becomes harder to clean – but is this practice actually dangerous?
The answer seems to be a slight yes. Cooking with aluminum foil has been shown to create numerous tiny cracks and flakes in the surface of the aluminum foil, as demonstrated with electron microscopy. Moreover, chemical leaching of aluminum into food occurs with greater ease when food contains acidic properties such as lemon juice or spices.
Excessive aluminum in the body has been associated with health problems, but the evidence is patchy and not necessarily convincing. According to the CDC, high levels of aluminum have been associated with Alzheimer’s in some clinical studies. However, this remains controversial as the disease is thought to be multifactorial, and cause and effect have not been established.
Inhalation of aluminum dust in an occupational setting (i.e., not just grilling) has been implicated in the development of respiratory problems and even pulmonary fibrosis in some studies but not in others, according to OSHA.
High levels of occupational aluminum exposure have been correlated with neurological balance, coordination, and memory declines.
Oral aluminum exposure has been associated with reproductive toxicity.
It has not been classified as a carcinogen.
In general, it seems that aluminum exposure through typical sources (foods and water supply) is not harmful enough to cause great concern or regulatory action.
However, mining, production, and disposal of aluminum create an undeniable environmental burden. Refining and smelting contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, including perfluorocarbons and sulfur dioxide, a precursor of acid rain. Recycling aluminum requires only 5 percent of the energy needed for primary extraction.
And so, I’m going to change this summer and choose not to grill on aluminum foil, less because of the hard scientific data and more because of the knowledge that significant flaking and leaching occur in my food. I’ve ordered a stainless steel griddle to put directly on the grill, which I’m sure will detract significantly from the joy of grilling and add directly to the burden of scrubbing and cleaning afterward.
“Dr. Charles” is a family physician who blogs at The Examining Room of Dr. Charles and The Green Examining Room.