Charcoal lighter fluid is subject to a mild controversy when it comes to use for cooking food. The lighter fluid is either petroleum based (e.g., mineral spirits) or alcohol based (usually methanol or ethanol). It can cause serious injury and even death if swallowed. When using lighter fluid to cook, some compounds are imparted to the food, which may even cause an unpleasant flavor in addition to the health risks.
At low levels, the hydrocarbons in lighter fluid are tasteless and undetectable, but high and repeated exposure to hydrocarbons is a known cancer risk. Many of petroleum’s volatile chemicals are water and fat-soluble. Many people suffer from cancer due to ingestion and exposure over time of these chemicals. In California, the sale of petroleum-based charcoal lighter fluid is regulated because it can cause photochemical smog through evaporation of its volatile organic compound (VOC’s).
A better alternative to lighter fluid is using ghee to start fires. This natural starter fuel has traditionally been used in India as the base for an oil lamp or candle, especially during Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. You can use ghee as a natural fire starter for your barbecue or charcoal grill. Simply place a small amount of ghee directly on the coal, and light it. Add more ghee, as needed. The ghee will soak into the coal and help it catch fire.
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- “RULE 1174. CONTROL OF VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUND EMISSIONS FROM THE IGNITION OF BARBECUE CHARCOAL” (PDF). South Coast Air Quality Management District. October 5, 1990. Retrieved July 5, 2014.
- McGrath, Susan. “Fire up the barbie – but not with charcoal lighter fluid.” The Seattle Times, June 9, 1991. Retrieved October 29, 2008.
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- Turgay Bork, Osman Celbis, Semih Petekkaya, Bedirhan Sezer Oner, Emine Samdancı. Sudden death in relation to inhaling lighter fluid in adolescents, Romanian Journal of Legal Medicine. 2017;44:379-383.