How Cooking Can Actually Be Bad for You
“Particulate matter” (PM2.5) is a term that many of us have heard in regard to the smog and air pollution in Beijing. But the cooking you do in your own home can produce concentrations of PM2.5 that are four times greater than major haze events in Beijing.
Yes, it’s a bit disquieting to know that making your healthy stir-fry could be generating dangerous air pollution in your own kitchen.
Cooking is, after all, an “act of controlled combustion,” the New York Times’ Well blog points out. When you grill, fry or toast food on a gas or electric grill, you are actually producing not only particulate matter but also nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and “volatile organic compounds” including acrolein, which was used in grenades in World War I.
We’re potentially endangering our own indoor air quality when cooking. 55 of 70 percent of homes with a gas stove emit enough nitrogen dioxide to exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of clean air while a quarter have air quality that is “worse than the worst recorded smog (nitrogen dioxide) event in London.”
The long-term effects of indoor air pollution cannot be overlooked. Jennifer M. Logue, an air quality engineer at the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found that the health impact of indoor pollutants is “on a par with that of car accidents, and greater than that of traditional concerns like secondhand smoke or radon.” The dangers come not only from the release of particulate matter but from the use of products like air fresheners, incense and candles used to hide odors. When ozone reacts with the chemicals in many such scenting agents, the result is formaldehyde.
Indoor air pollution, often due to cooking or heating with open fires or on traditional stoves, is also a serious public health issue around the world. As the World Health Organization notes, research links indoor air pollution to acute lower respiratory infections in children under five and also to chronic pulmonary disease and (when coal is used) lung cancer in adults.
How Can We Clean Up the Air Inside Our Own Homes?
Energy-efficient appliances (ranked with the “Energy Star” rating, for instance) do not indicate the impact of an appliance on our health. But changes in cooking practices — something as obvious as opening a window when using the stove can help – and revisingin the design of kitchens can make a difference.
Engineers from the Lawrence Lab also think we need to change building codes so that all kitchens have venting range hoods above stoves. Of course, people still need to use them but what if, with better awareness of the dangers of air pollution inside the house, range hoods could be made to turn on automatically when high enough levels of pollutants were detected?
In the U.S., the levels of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide in many California homes are high enough that, if they had been detected outdoors, the E.P.A. would be “cracking down,” says scientist Brett Singer. Since these high levels occur in people’s private homes, “there’s no regulation requiring anyone to fix it.”
Until there is, and until the dangers of indoor air pollution are more widely acknowledged, it’s best to turn on the kitchen fan and open the windows — and you might also consider making some raw dishes. Food doesn’t have to be cooked (and certainly not “cooked to death”) to taste good.
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