Eating out, breathing in

November 30, 2018, Carnegie Mellon University Mechanical Engineering
Eating out, breathing in
Organic aerosol is produced during the cooking process. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University Mechanical Engineering

By now, most Americans are well aware of the air pollution created by power plants or heavy vehicle traffic. These sources discharge harmful particulate matter that becomes suspended in the air, creating what's called an aerosol.

However, another source of air pollution may be hiding right beneath our noses—restaurants.

"Restaurant food-cooking emissions are a major, if not the major, driver of spatial variability of organic aerosol," says Carnegie Mellon University's Ellis Robinson.

Translation: Restaurants are mainly responsible for high concentrations of organic aerosol (OA), a large source of air pollution, within their immediate surrounding areas.

Robinson, a at Carnegie Mellon's Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies (CAPS), was the leader of the recent study that produced this finding.

Restaurants cook with large amounts of oils and other organic matter, which is aerosolized into OA and ventilated directly from the kitchen in the form of exhaust. This exhaust carries the OA produced in the out into the urban environment.

While cooking has already been documented as a major source of OA, Robinson and the team from CAPS decided to take the innovative step of taking their study to the streets by making their measurements within neighborhoods containing many restaurants and busy thoroughfares.

Using an instrument called an aerosol mass spectrometer to measure air quality throughout the city of Pittsburgh, Pa., the team was able to trace OA concentrations back to their origin. The device allowed them to accurately determine whether the OA had originated from restaurant sources or traffic sources, the other major contributor to OA in urban areas. They conducted most of their measurements during the early evening, when the overlap of rush-hour traffic and dinnertime ensured that both sources were at their max OA output.

The results were profound. Of the high-concentration OA "plumes" the team measured, seven out of every ten originated from restaurants or other cooking sources.

While these findings may raise some eyebrows, they're easier to believe when considered within a larger context. Unlike automotive emissions, which have come under increasing scrutiny as a source of , restaurants and commercial kitchens have largely been ignored. Other than New York City and a handful of cities in California, few local governments have placed restrictions on how these establishments vent their exhaust.

Still, with continued additions to the literature like Robinson's study, awareness of the effect of restaurants on air quality is growing. As he notes, locations are often distributed very differently than other sources of pollutants.

While Robinson believes that the study has shed light on an underemphasized source of pollution, he also wants to make it clear that this issue is a manageable one—with some major cities already tackling the problem with mandatory exhaust filtration, more are sure to follow suit.

"I don't want someone to see this and think that we need to close all restaurants," he says, "but I think it's good if we've compelled people to think a little more about food cooking as part of the larger air quality picture."

This work was performed by members of the Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies (CAPS) and the Center for Air, Climate and Energy Solutions (CACES). The findings were published in Environmental Science & Technology.

Explore further: Researchers find new vehicle emissions to be deceptively clean

More information: Restaurant Impacts on Outdoor Air Quality: Elevated Organic Aerosol Mass from Restaurant Cooking with Neighborhood-Scale Plume Extents, Environmental Science & Technology. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b02654

Related Stories

The when, where and what of air pollutant exposure

October 31, 2018

Scientists have linked air pollution with many health conditions including asthma, heart disease, lung cancer and premature death. Among air pollutants, fine particulate matter is especially harmful because the tiny particles ...

Why printed calorie counts at restaurants are important

October 4, 2018

(HealthDay)—May 7, 2018 marked a milestone for public health in the United States. It's the date that mandatory nutrition and calorie information took effect for most chain restaurants, enabling consumers to compare menu ...

CMU researcher studies variation in pollutant emissions

November 9, 2015

Cities are known to wear an unfortunate toupee of air pollution. Even with EPA standards and the development of green infrastructure, pollutant emissions are much higher in populous cities than in the sprawling countryside. ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.