One major study by the University of California, Berkeley, and the Harvard School of Public Health found in 2005 that pollution from wood fires kills more than 1.6 million people, primarily women and children, in third world countries from respiratory diseases caused by the pollution from wood fires.
As many as 1.3 to 3.7 million persons could be saved from premature death if Africa could rapidly switch from wood to kerosene and propane, that study concluded, although that change was not deemed likely. Many lives could be saved, however, if more Africans could switch from wood to charcoal, the researchers found, but even that has its downside.
Charcoal burns cleaner than wood, the researchers said, but the way charcoal is produced in Africa is so inefficient that it has become a huge source of global pollution.
"Most charcoal is produced in Africa by one or two guys going out in the woods, almost always without a permit and on somebody else's land, cutting down a tree or two, chopping it up, lighting it, covering it with dirt, and then hovering around it for two to four days while it becomes charcoal," University of California Berkeley energy professor Daniel Kammen said in releasing the study.
Randomly chopping down trees is also pretty hard on the forest, which today is still one of the first lines of defense against global climate change because of the ability of trees to sequester carbon, at least for a few decades.
The biggest concern among many backyard chefs, however, has little to do with British thermal units contained in a typical briquette, or pollution caused by burning charcoal, or even saving lives in Africa by switching to charcoal from wood.
Is grilling really the healthy way to go?
Surf the net for a while and you'll find all sorts of claims ranging from the family barbecue pit can give you cancer to the amount of pollution caused by backyard grilling is so slight compared to other sources that it isn't worth worrying about. Maybe so, on both counts.
There's some evidence that grilling can expose you to carcinogens, regardless of which fuel you use. The problem, according to cancer researchers, is in the temperature, not the fuel.
If you like your steak well done, burning it around the edges produces chemicals called heterocyclic amines, according to the National Institutes of Health, which are known to cause cancer in animals and are suspected of causing cancer in humans.
But those chemicals are produced by excessive heat, whether it's a grill or a frying pan on the kitchen stove. There is some concern also that fat dripping from the meat onto the heat-source causes smoke that can add additional chemicals to the meat, but that's a matter that is still debated.
Although there's no absolute answers to these questions, there does seem to be a trend in the various studies. It does appear that charcoal leaves a larger carbon footprint than propane, burning your red meat is not a good idea, and grilling veggies may not be as much fun, but it's probably healthier.