As summer fades into autumn, many people are making the most of the cooler but still sunny weather by cooking out. But before firing up the grill one last time, it pays to take a few safety precautions, says Dr. Robert Spence, director of the National Burn Reconstruction Center at Good Samaritan Hospital.
Could you describe some of the dangers associated with grilling?
At burn centers, it is common during this time of year - when people are lighting grills [for cookouts] - to see injuries that occurred because people are unaware of the dangers of lighting flammable liquids.
Too often we will see people who have done what they saw actors do on TV or in movies: Use gasoline to ignite something. If you hesitate just a few moments [between pouring the gasoline and lighting it], the liquid can vaporize or billow up into the air and, when ignited, can explode into flame.
Could you describe what flammable liquids are?
They are substances with very low ignition points that form vapors under the temperature of 100 degrees [Fahrenheit]. These liquids vaporize and form flammable mixtures when they come into contact with the air - whether in an open container, poured on coals or when leaks occur. The most common ones are gasoline and propane. Charcoal lighter fluid doesn't vaporize as much, and that is why it is sold as something to start your grill with.
What are some safety measures that people should take?
If you are using a [propane] grill, make sure to maintain it properly so there is no leak of propane, and so that the grill will light immediately after being turned on.
The most common problem occurs when the electrical ignition goes out and people switch to using a match to light their grill. If there is any delay between turning on the gas and lighting the grill, it can ignite. If people are going to do this, they need to light a match quickly and stand back.
And what about charcoal grills?
I would caution about using too much lighter fluid; use the minimum necessary. And put the lighter fluid on before the coals are lighted; don't squirt lighter fluid on already burning charcoal.
Too many people decide to use gasoline if they don't have lighter fluid. The difference is that gasoline will vaporize and get into the air just above the grill, and when they strike the match, there is an explosion.
If a grill does explode or flare up, (beyond calling 911 if there is a fire) what steps can you take?
Usually, the explosion is very quick and burns very hot and can catch the clothes. If your clothes catch on fire, the reaction should be "stop, drop and roll." Get low, don't run.
What other safety measures can you take?
Keep your gas or charcoal grills away from flammable things: your house, trees, anything that can catch on fire. Always turn the propane tank off after use. Store gas in properly marked, approved containers away from ignition sources (such as hot water tank pilot lights, electric motors).