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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The EPA Will Not Regulate Your Barbecue

A Republican congressman says the Environmental Protection Agency wants “to stop you and I from grilling,” and he has proposed legislation that would prohibit federal regulation of backyard barbecues. Rep. Richard Hudson cites an EPA “study,” but that is actually a student design project; the EPA says it has no plans to regulate barbecues.

Hudson, a Republican from North Carolina, joins a number of other politicians who have criticized a specific grant awarded by the EPA to a project aimed at reducing possible health effects related to residential grilling. For example, in May, Sen. John McCain included this particular grant as part of his “America’s Most Wasted” report, which highlighted what he considered examples of wasteful government spending. More recently, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio also featured the barbecue issue in his “Your Tax Dollars … Down the Drain” series.

Hudson spoke on the House floor to add an amendment to the Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Act:

Hudson, July 7: As you may recall, last August the EPA issued a grant to ‘perform research and develop preventable [sic] technology that will reduce fine particulate emissions from residential barbecues.’

The EPA gets a lot of things wrong, especially with this preposterous study. … What they’re proposing is reducing emissions from residential propane grills, which means they want to stop you and I from grilling outside on our own property. By the way, propane is one of the most clean and efficient sources of energy out there.

Regulations that waste our time, money and resources are bad as it is, but they’re trying to go as far as restricting our personal freedom.

His amendment would prohibit the EPA from using appropriated funds to regulate residential barbecues; it passed by voice vote on July 7. But the grant in question was actually not at all related to the EPA’s regulatory activities. Instead, it was part of a student competition.

The competition is called the “P3 Awards: SciCHECKinsertA National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet.” The specific project was proposed by students at the University of California, Riverside; they received a $15,000 grant from the EPA in August 2014 that lasts about one more month.

The students’ idea is to add a removable grease tray and a specialized air filtration system to propane barbecues, specifically to reduce the amount of particulate matter emissions to which the grill operator is exposed. These emissions, known as PM2.5, primarily come from car and truck tailpipes, smokestacks of power plants and factories, and other sources. PM2.5 particles can lodge deep in the lungs and cause serious health problems, according to the World Health Organization.

These effects can come from both short- and long-term exposure to PM2.5, and can include respiratory and cardiovascular issues such as aggravation of asthma, and eventually, increased risk of death from heart disease, lung cancer and other causes. In one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002, researchers matched up mortality information for approximately 500,000 adults with pollution levels in cities across the U.S. They found that for every 10 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in PM2.5 concentration in the air, there was a 4 percent increased risk of death from any cause, as well as a 6 percent increase of cardiopulmonary death and an 8 percent increased risk of lung cancer death. The WHO estimates that about 3 percent of cardiopulmonary deaths and about 5 percent of lung cancer deaths around the world are attributable to particulate matter.

Other studies have found shorter-term risks associated with PM2.5 as well. In one, published in 2001 in Circulation, elevated concentrations of PM2.5 were observed in the hours leading up to heart attacks in a group of 772 patients in the Boston area. In another, from Epidemiology in 2000, elevated levels of particulate matter as well as other pollutants were associated with increased rates of arrhythmias.

The students will test their new technology against existing grills to see if PM2.5 exposure is reduced with the altered grills, with the goal of lessening some of those potential health effects. If successful, they could try to market their technology.

This design competition has nothing to do with EPA’s regulatory activities. Other grant awardees include projects to create a self-healing rebar coating, increase the use of carpooling and use of mass transit, and even one to wirelessly monitor water use in hotel room showers.

We asked the agency if it intends to “regulate” backyard barbecues, and we received this email response from Deputy Press Secretary Laura Allen:

Allen, July 8: Let me be clear: the agency is not regulating backyard barbeques.

As you mention, the grant was given to student researchers at the University of California, Riverside who are participating in a design competition for sustainability, similar to a student science fair. The competition helps inspire the next generation of innovators and scientists, and brings technology and science into the marketplace. The market would decide if this technology is used.  

The EPA does not, as Hudson said, “want to stop you and I from grilling outside on our own property,” nor does this grant suggest the agency is interested in “restricting our personal freedom.” Though Hudson is entitled to his opinion on what constitutes EPA “overreach,” he clearly mischaracterized this particular agency activity. Your backyard barbecue is safe.

Editor’s Note: SciCheck is made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.

– Dave Levitan

Update, July 13: After we posted this item, we heard from Kawai Tam, one of the professors at UC Riverside who advised the students on their project. She told us that the students tested their grease catchment tray and a “catalytic smokestack” using a specialized filter while cooking four hamburger patties. Compared with a grill without their technology, the students’ grill cut PM2.5 emissions by 40 percent.

They presented these results and the technology at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Alexandria, Virginia, in April. But the EPA did not select this project to receive phase 2 funding, which was awarded to other student projects in the competition. Tam told us that without further funding the development of this project will not continue.