Everyone loves a good bbq, but when those said BBQs include toxic chemicals and gas, maybe not so much. A common concern when grilling up some grub is if the fuels we are using are toxic.
It’s already said that charcoal grilling has the potential to be dangerous, but what about other forms of fuel? Are wood pellets toxic? And if so, to what degree?
How Are Wood Pellets Made
To figure out if wood pellets are safe, first, we have to figure out how they’re made and what goes into them.
Wood pellets are used for a whole range of things, but since we’re talking about wood pellet grills today, we’ll focus on that!
Most bbq wood pellets used on the grill are made from sawdust compacted into the small wood pellets you know today.
Let's take a look at the process:
- Mill: The wood used for producing pellets - sometimes recycled and sometimes fresh - is passed through a hammer mill. Just like a dough mixture, the wood is beaten and compact into a mixture. This makes it easier for the wood to be pressed into the wood pellets molds.
- Pressing: The dough is then sent to processing, where it is pressed into 6mm holes similar to the side of a cheese grater. This pressure is so strong that it begins to increase in temperature.
- Bonding: As the temperature begins to rise, the natural binding agents within the wood are reactivated. This forms a natural glue that helps keep the pellet together once it starts to cool.
- Packing: The pellets are cleaned to get rid of any excess sawdust. From there, they are packaged up and sent out to stores where you can purchase them.
The wood pellets are processed this way to make sure they are packed as densely as possible, providing maximum heat when the pellets come to your grill or smoker. It’s a great way to get most of the moisture out of the wood, so your wood pellet grill can burn without dampened wood.
A densely packed, dry pellets ensure your burn hits its maximum potential.
What Are Pellet Fillers?
As you may know, there are a lot of different types of wood pellets on the market. You may have heard - or already own - flavored wood such as apple, cherry, etc.
When it comes to cooking with wood chunks or wood chips, they’ll usually be 100% the flavor you purchased. Wood pellets, on the other hand, have a higher chance of including some sort of filler. This is usually oak.
The hardwood is used to make burning in your smoker or grill more consistent. For blends, this is especially important. Some woods will have a quicker solid-burning time than others, so you will have to keep topping up your fuel while grilling. This could lead to hot spots and flare-ups.
The reason for adding oak fillers into the wood pellet is to stop these things from happening, in turn giving you a more stable and consistent burn across the grill.
“There’s grilling, and there’s barbecue. Grilling is when people say, ‘We’re going to turn up the heat, make it really hot and sear a steak, sear a burger, cook a chicken.’ Barbecue is going low and slow.”
— Guy Fieri, American chef and author
Are Wood Pellets Safe?
Yes, they generally are safe. When wood pellets are produced using the process we explained above, there is usually only a minor threat in terms of toxicity.
The process aims to produce the pellets as naturally as possible. This method is the go-to for all well-known grade A-brands since they aim to produce something effective and safe, which would explain their higher price tag.
Although, that isn't to say all natural grade A pellets don't come with risks.  When it comes to cheaper pellet brands though, there is a higher chance they use chemicals and binding agents to produce their pellets at a lower cost.
This can be true for any production of bbq burners, including charcoal and briquettes. They may use fillers that aren’t exclusive to natural ingredients such as oak, which in turn will make your pellets toxic and bad for your health.
This is especially true when they’re exposed to meats and food. Carbon monoxide is always a risk you’ll face when burning any wood. Exposure for too long can be harmful to your health, so avoid smoke and carbon monoxide emissions coming your way.
If you pick your pellets right, you’re not in any real danger. Double-check that they don't contain any fillers like charcoal and avoid cooking, grilling, or smoking in burning heat for hours upon hours.
Can A Wood Pellet Grill Cause Cancer?
When people grill or smoke meat, there has always been a concern with cancer. This concern has grown due to cooking meat with gas or charcoal fuel, which can develop polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heterocyclic amines (HCA). When you cook at very high temperatures, HCA can develop inside the muscle of the meat. This can increase the risks of cancer. 
PAHs are formed as the fat and juices drip from meat and food, falling into the fire of your stove, smokers, or barbecue. This causes flare-up flames to cover the food with PAHs.
The smoke emissions from pellets when you’re grilling can come from PAHs, which is where the concerns of cancer risk stem from. Though, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. As long as you’re not grilling all day, every day on your barbecue with high heat, you shouldn’t be at a high health risk.
Other Wood Pellet Grill Dangers
Besides the slight risks of toxic concerns through the pellet production, there are a couple of things that concern smokers too:
- Fire Hazard
Anything can be a hazard when you literally put it in the fire. That being said, since these pellets are made to catch fire and keep a high heat, concerns about creating fire when you don’t want them to are expected. To avoid unwanted fires, store the pellets in a safe place with little moisture. Also, clean the ash well to avoid relight.
- Air Pollution
When cooking or with pellets, there’s a risk of producing carbon monoxide into the ozone layer. Thankfully, manufacturers with the environment in mind have taken this on board, creating a pellet that is nicer to the world.
So, Are Wood Pellets Toxic?
Cooking food with a wood pellet grill does have its health risks, but arguably not more than the typical burn fluid. In fact, pellets, especially grade A ones, are much more healthy than charcoals or lighter fluids. It all lies in the production of the pellets. So if you care about your safety, go according to quality, not price.