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Why Lumber Is Not Safe for Smoking or Grilling

From an expert's perspective, lumber is unsuitable for smoking and grilling due to health risks. Unlike raw timber, lumber is often chemically treated for construction. Burning lumber releases toxic chemicals, producing harmful ash and smoke. Therefore, only use unprocessed wood for cooking to avoid these dangers.

Why Lumber Is Not Safe for Smoking or Grilling

The Dangers of Processed Lumber in Cooking

Grilling with pressure-treated lumber is unsafe due to the chemicals used in its treatment. These chemicals, including arsenic, chromium, copper, and other toxic compounds, are intended to extend the wood's life and protect it from decay and insects. However, when exposed to high heat or direct contact with food, these chemicals can become part of the smoke and ash. This contaminated smoke can adhere to the food being grilled, leading to chemical transference and potential health risks.

Short-term exposure to these chemicals can cause skin and eye irritation, as well as respiratory problems. Long-term exposure, particularly through regular consumption of contaminated food, can lead to serious health conditions such as cancer, neurological problems, reproductive issues, and impaired child development. Burning treated wood can release even more harmful compounds, like carcinogenic arsenic fumes, which are dangerous when inhaled or when they come into contact with food. To ensure safe grilling, use untreated, natural hardwoods like oak, hickory, or applewood, and always verify that the wood is intended for cooking purposes.

Understanding the Differences Between Lumber and Timber

Understanding the difference between lumber and timber is crucial for grilling and smoking.

Lumber wood


Lumber is processed wood, often treated with chemicals for construction. Burning lumber, especially pressure-treated, is hazardous due to these chemicals. They protect against rot, insects, and moisture but can leach into food during grilling, posing significant health risks such as skin and respiratory irritation, and severe conditions like cancer.

Timber wood


Timber refers to wood in its natural, unprocessed state, unlike lumber. Though sometimes used interchangeably, timber for grilling and smoking is ideally untreated and free from chemicals found in processed lumber. This distinction is crucial as untreated timber is safer for culinary uses, avoiding the health risks associated with chemical treatments in processed wood.

Health Risks Associated with Burning Treated Lumber

Using treated lumber for grilling poses significant health risks due to harmful chemicals. Treated lumber contains chemical preservatives to extend durability and protect against decay and pests. When burned, these chemicals release toxic compounds into the air and onto food. A major concern is the release of arsenic, a carcinogen used in pressure-treated wood until 2003, which can leach onto food, increasing cancer risk. Newer treatments still contain harmful chemicals like copper and chromium, posing health hazards.

Burning treated wood also releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), known carcinogens that cause long-term health issues. Smoke from burning treated lumber irritates the respiratory system, eyes, and skin, leading to discomfort and potential respiratory problems. Even some untreated woods, like pine, produce hazardous creosote. Wood identification difficulties add risk, as misidentifying toxic wood as safe can lead to harmful exposure. Therefore, using only known safe wood varieties from reputable suppliers is crucial for safe grilling.

Kiln dried Maple wood for grilling

Identifying Safe Woods for Smoking and Grilling

Identifying safe woods for smoking and grilling is crucial for health and culinary excellence. While using readily available woods like driftwood for beach cookouts is tempting, it's important to understand the risks. Driftwood, especially from saltwater, can release dioxins when burned. These dioxins are highly toxic and can cause serious health issues, including cancer and immune system damage.

For safe and flavorful grilling and smoking, use woods specifically produced for these purposes. Typically, these are seasoned hardwoods that burn cleanly and efficiently, ensuring both safety and optimal flavor.

Best Firewoods for Grilling

Best Firewood Guide

Popular woods for smoking and grilling include hickory, oak, apple, cherry, and maple. Learn about kiln drying and the best firewoods in our complete guide, "The Best Firewood for Your Grill".

When selecting wood for smoking or grilling, choose varieties like oak, hickory, maple, apple, and cherry, which impart pleasant flavors. These natural and untreated woods do not contain harmful chemicals, unlike construction lumber, ensuring food safety and enhancing flavor.

In summary, construction lumber is treated with potential chemical hazards, whereas natural timber is safer for culinary use if it’s the right type. Always ensure wood for grilling or smoking is explicitly labeled as safe for these purposes to enjoy a risk-free cooking experience.

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