Fire Up The Barbie - But Not With Charcoal Lighter Fluid

KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK! It's the environmental police! Open up in the name of the earth! Are you the owner of the house, ma'am? We have a report that someone at this address was observed lighting a barbecue with a controlled substance. Stand back; we're comin' in.

In Southern California, where it's barbecue weather all year round, people do a lot of grilling out. Like their compatriots in other states, most of them light their fires with the old tried-and-true method: Scrape the coals up into a little pyramid, douse them liberally with a commercial, petroleum-derived, volatile organic compound, throw down a lit match and jump away.

The average emissions from charcoal lighter fluid squirted over coals in the four counties that make up greater Los Angeles is 2.5 tons of reactive hydrocarbons a day. On a hot summer's Sunday, Los Angeles's charcoal lighters can produce up to 4 tons of hydrocarbons a day. That is slightly more than twice the hydrocarbon pollution emitted by an oil refinery on any given day.

Reactive hydrocarbons are one of the principal ingredients of a deadly Los Angeles specialty - smog. L.A. may have the most famous smog, but it isn't the only city plagued with this dangerous form of pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency lists 38 metropolitan areas that failed to comply with federal air-quality standards, for ozone to which hydrocarbons contribute in 1989, the most recent national statistics available. The Seattle area made the 1990 list.

If Los Angeles leads the nation in producing smog, it should also be noted that the city leads the nation in efforts to curb smog. Which brings us back to lighter fluid. As part of their clean-air efforts, California's Air Quality Board ordered makers of charcoal-lighter fluid to formulate a cleaner-burning product by 1992 or face being banned from stores.

Outraged barbecue-industry representatives are quick to point out that it makes much more sense to go after the biggies - cars, for example, which emit hydrocarbons in the hundreds of tons - than to hound relatively small contributors such as lighter fluid.

They are right, of course. Stop driving so much. Take the bus. Carpool. Walk. Get a bike. Live closer to your job, your day care and your mother.

But they are also wrong. Cleaning up air pollution is proving to be a tricky, expensive and disheartening task. We must cut emissions every way we can. Changing our squirt-the-coals-and-jump-away barbecuing practices is a very small price to pay - especially since you can save money and still barbecue just as often.

Here are some alternatives recommended by the California Air Quality Board:

-- A charcoal chimney. This is a metal cone with handles. Stuff newspaper in the bottom, up to 4 pounds of coals in the top. Light the paper with a match, wait 15 minutes and dump your red hot coals onto the grill.

-- An electric starter. These look like a curling iron from hell. They are inexpensive and should last several grilling seasons.

-- A propane grill. Several companies make these, in various sizes. You can buy portable ones for car camping or picnicking.

-- A natural-gas grill. These are for you very serious barbecuers. Have one installed on your patio. Consumer Reports' July issue rates them.

-- Any of several fire-starting products, including gels, treated wood chips, long-burning safety matches and paraffin doo-dads.

Shop around at hardware, drug, grocery and general stores to find the alternative that suits you. Let your fingers do the walking, of course, so that you don't make up for saved barbecue emissions in spent gas emissions. And then, well, bon appetit.

Postscript: King County's Surface Water Management Division writes that their "Home Tips for Clean Streams" booklet contains an inaccuracy that I perpetuated in an earlier column.

According to Lakeside Industries of Redmond, porous asphalt is neither feasible nor affordable for the average homeowner - unless your estate includes an athletic field or a major road.

The county is reprinting the brochure and correcting the error. To get a copy of the booklet write: Department of Public Works, 730 Dexter Horton Building, 710 Second Ave., Seattle, WA 98104. Susan McGrath's column runs weekly in the Home/Real Estate section of The Times. Do you have a question about decisions you can make in your everyday life to help keep your household healthy? Have you found solutions? Send questions and comments to The Household Environmentalist, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA, 98111.