Why Your Kitchen Air May Be Surprisingly Hazardous

Is there any better smell than a favorite food simmering away on the stove? There is a reason why home-cooked meals hold a special place in the hearts of so many. Throughout the ages, cooking has been used to bond with loved ones, impress potential suitors and provide for family members. However, could it also be a source of air pollution inside your home? Below, we discuss the sources of air pollution that you may find in your kitchen and what you can do to protect the air quality inside your home.

Is your kitchen air quality worse than the outdoors?

Your home was built to shelter you from the outdoor elements. Unfortunately, the walls and roof that keep rain, wind and the sun’s midday rays out of your house are also great at keeping airborne pollutants inside. In fact, the EPA estimates that indoor air quality can be two to five times worse than outdoor air quality. One of the main contributors to poor indoor air quality? The kitchen.

Your kitchen air quality can vary depending on which type of home you live. Factors to consider include:

  • Single-family homes — If your home has an open floor plan where the kitchen meets living areas, people in the living and dining rooms can be exposed to airborne pollutants created while cooking.
  • Apartments and condos — In apartments and condominiums, kitchens tend to be smaller, with fewer windows for ventilation. In older buildings, ineffective exhaust fans and range hoods may not provide much help in removing pollutants from the air.
  • Studio — The open floor plan of studio apartments typically means that there is no dividing wall between the living space and the kitchen. Gases and particulate matter from cooking can spread quickly throughout the entire residence.

Which pollutants can be found in your kitchen?

The different heating processes that you use while you cook produce different airborne emissions. These gases and particulate matter (PM) can have harmful effects on your health. Even if you cook once a week with a gas stove, it is possible for your kitchen to reach pollutant levels that the EPA would deem very harmful if found outdoors. This means that you, your family and your pets could possibly be exposed to concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde and carbon monoxide that exceed federal standards. According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, this exposure can be especially concerning for children, people with asthma, and those with heart or lung disease because they are more susceptible to the health effects caused by indoor air pollution.

Which parts of the kitchen cause the most pollution?

When it comes to cooking and air pollution, not all appliances are created equal. Below, find a list of the biggest air quality offenders that you can find in your kitchen.

Stove

Natural gas and propane stoves produce a wide range of pollutants during use, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde and particulate matter. A 2001 report published by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) found that cooking a fried chicken dinner on a gas stove created average indoor nitrogen dioxide levels of 400 parts per billion (significantly higher than the ARB’s suggested guideline of 250 parts per billion.)

Gas Stove Kitchen Pollution

Electric stoves may not produce as much air pollution as their gas-powered counterparts, but they can still emit high levels of particulate matter. Interestingly, the 2001 ARB report noted that frying tortillas and stir-frying on an electric stove actually produced significantly higher concentrations of particulate matter than they did when performed on a gas stove. The report’s authors note that this discrepancy may be due to either the decreased temperature control of the electric stove or spilled food on the electric burners.

Oven

While both gas and electric ovens can produce pollutants such as particulate matter and formaldehyde during regular use, self-cleaning ovens have the potential to emit the highest levels of airborne pollutants. As food waste is burned away, potentially harmful concentrations of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde are released into the kitchen air, according to the 2001 ARB study. Though gas-powered and electric ovens both produced high levels of pollutants during cleaning, gas ovens were the biggest offenders. High-heat oven activities, such as broiling fish or overcooking food, were found to produce concentrations of formaldehyde similar to those formed during oven cleaning.

Other appliances

While the oven and stove are probably the most significant sources of airborne pollutants during cooking, many appliances that use heat, such as toasters, deep fryers and woks, can release particulate matter and VOCs into the air. This is especially true of appliances that are not used very often, because while heating, the device burns away any dust that has gathered on the surface, which then recondenses in the air as particulate matter.

Which cooking activities cause the most indoor air pollution?

Now you know that cooking can create particulate matter and VOCs, but did you know that how you prepare your food can influence the levels of pollutants are produced in the kitchen? For example:

Deep frying involves heating ingredients in oil or fat at high temperatures, creating an array of unhealthy air pollutants in the process. The oil used in frying emits high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can cause a range of health effects including eye and respiratory irritation. Stir-frying, in particular, has been found to emit significant concentrations of particulate matter (Apte & Solvi 2016).

Browning — such as grilling steaks or toasting bread—may seem like the time when food smells the best, but that smell is caused by compounds released while you cook, including brown carbon (a type of particulate matter) and VOCs formed during incomplete combustion.

browning steaks cooking pollution

Multitasking may seem like an efficient way to utilize your time in the kitchen, but certain combinations of activities can exponentially decrease your indoor air quality. For example, cleaning with bleach while cooking with teriyaki sauce can produce chloramines, known to cause respiratory inflammation, according to research performed by HOMEChem, as reported on by The New Yorker. HOMEChem also found that cleaning with bleach while using a gas burner can create nitryl chloride, a key component of coastal smog formation.

In addition to how you cook, what you cook can impact the air quality in your kitchen. For example:

  • Meat dishes produce different atmospheric chemistry than vegetarian dishes.
  • Regular meat produces significantly more particulate matter than lean meat.
  • Different spices react with the ozone in different ways and some, such as star anise, may actually decrease ozone and improve air quality.

Tips for maintaining your kitchen air quality when cooking

Just because cooking can produce air pollution in your kitchen does not mean that you should completely switch over to take-out. Though you may not be able to make all of the changes below, any step that you take, no matter how small, can help increase the air quality in your home while you cook.

  • Switch to an electric stove. Cooking on a gas burner creates significantly higher levels of emissions due to the additional products of combustion. If you cook on a gas stove, you should have it inspected once a year for carbon monoxide and gas leaks.
  • Increase ventilation in your kitchen. You can lower concentrations of cooking emissions in the air by using an exhaust fan or range hood or even just by opening a window.
  • Increase ventilation in your entire home by running your HVAC system while you cook.
  • Move the barbecue outdoors. Buying a grill can help you move high-emissions cooking activities such as charbroiling (and the pollutants it produces) out of your home, especially if your kitchen is small or not well-ventilated. If you cannot cook outside, consider working with a friend or family member to host stir-fry or grill nights in their well-ventilated kitchen instead.
  • Try not to overheat food, and keep stove burners free from food debris.

While it is true that pollutant concentrations in your kitchen can quickly reach harmful levels while you are cooking, it should not keep you from savoring a home-cooked meal. Making mindful choices in the kitchen—especially when it comes to ventilation—can help maintain the air quality in your home while you prepare all of your favorite dishes.

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