When you think of pollution, you probably think of that layer of smog above the city or that gross black smoke that puffs in your face when the bus drives by. Maybe you think of all those empty chip bags and cans on the beach. You probably don’t think of your kitchen.
But your lemon-fresh kitchen might not be as clean as you think. The health burden of indoor air pollution is as significant as that of traffic accidents or infectious diseases in the United States, a 2011 study conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) shows.
And a huge source of this pollution is cooking.
Many kitchen appliances release colorless pollutants. Combine that with poor ventilation (which most homes also have), and your kitchen could be an invisible pollution haven.
Under The Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set standards for “criteria pollutants” (common hazardous air pollutants) aimed to minimize health and environmental harm. The United States has been pretty good about meeting these standards, but the EPA only inspects public and outdoor spaces. When it comes to your home, you’re the pollution inspector.
So, Mr. Pollution Inspector, let’s take a look at your kitchen.
First, a little vocab lesson. These are the pollutants found in your kitchen:
Carbon monoxide(CO) is an odorless, colorless toxic gas. At high levels of exposure you can die, at low levels of exposure you could experience flu-like symptoms. Exposure for pregnant women can also have severe effects on the health of a fetus.
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) is a reactive gas. According to the EPA, exposure to this gas has unclear results in the short-term, but it does irritate the lungs and could weaken resistance to respiratory infections.
Particulate Matter (PM) are tiny particles of pollution that when inhaled can seriously affect the health of your lungs and heart.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are gases that deplete the ozone later, leading to global warming. CFCs can also harm your health causing headaches, dizziness and heart troubles.
Acrolein is a liquid or solid that is toxic to humans when inhaled or consumed orally. The level of irritation depends on the level of exposure.
Now, let’s examine the biggest source of potential hazards in your kitchen:
The Stove releases nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and acrolein (yikes!)
Gas burners add an estimated 25 to 33 percent indoor NO2 in the summer and 35 to 39 percent in the winter (because of less ventilation). In the summer, gas ranges cause an estimated 30 percent increase in CO in the summer and a 21 percent increase in the winter when compared to electric stoves, according to a study conducted by Lawrence Lab and Stanford University researchers. The study, published in the January 2014 edition of Environmental Health Perspectives, analyzed the summer and winter pollution concentration levels of 6,634 Southern California homes, half of which used gas stoves and half of which used electric stoves.
A solution, then, would be to use an electric stove, right? Right-ish.
Yes, electric stoves contribute significantly less NO2 and CO2, but it’s not just the appliance that releases pollutants, it’s the cooking itself. The burning of animal and vegetable fats creates acrolein, a chemical “toxic to humans following inhalation”, according to the EPA. Exposure to low levels of acrolein, like from cooking in the kitchen, can make your eyes and nose itchy. At more intense levels, acrolein can be more irritating and was actually used as a chemical weapon in World War I.
These three appliances could also use a clean-up:
Pilot Light: releases Nitrogen Dioxide.
The Toaster: releases fine and ultrafine particulate matter.
Refrigerator: releases CFCs.
Did you just fail the kitchen inspection? Don’t worry, you’re not doomed. Here are some easy fixes:
1) Get an electric stove. A study conducted by John’s Hopkins University researchers found that stove replacement decreased kitchen NO2 concentration by 51 percent three months after instillation.
2) Get an air purifier. The same John’s Hopkins study found that an air purifier has immediate effects at decreasing kitchen NO2 concentrations. NO2 concentrations decreased by 27 percent one week after introduction.
3) Minimize exposure to cooking fats and oils. Since acrolein is created from the burning of these fats, reducing exposure to these reduces acrolein. Another reason those fried foods are bad for you!
4) Choose an electric ignition instead of a pilot light. A Harvard University study of 482 Los Angeles households over a one-year period shows that homes with gas stoves with gas pilot lights have on average 4 ppb (parts per billion, a measure of gas concentration) more NO2 than gas stoves with electric ignitions and 10 ppb more than electric stoves.
5) Get a range hood. A range hood over your stove can improve circulation. Turn the fan on and cook on the burner closest to the fan.
6) Open the windows. Improve air ventilation and circulation by opening a window.