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New research uncovers staggering amount of pollutants flowing out of our kitchens: 'If you can smell it … it's impacting air quality'

These findings are likely applicable everywhere — and they've escaped unnoticed for a long time.

These findings are likely applicable everywhere — and they've escaped unnoticed for a long time.

Photo Credit: iStock

If you've ever walked down the street and smelled something delicious cooking, you inadvertently encountered a previously unknown — but major — source of air pollution.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, "If you can smell it, there's a good chance it's impacting air quality."

What's happening?

A new study from NOAA's Chemical Science Laboratory found that the pollutants emitted from cooking are responsible for nearly a quarter of human-caused air pollution in cities.

These pollutants are primarily volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Because VOCs cause the production of both ozone pollution and particulate matter pollution, they're a key indicator of air quality.

The NOAA lab team found that, on average, 21% of human-caused VOCs in the outdoor air could be traced back to cooking. These numbers varied based on time of day, from 10% to 30% of the total human-caused VOC mass.

For context, the human-caused VOC pollution in downtown Las Vegas can be broken down as follows: Half are caused by volatile chemicals, with the other half evenly split between cooking and vehicle pollution.

Why is this finding significant?

It's true that Vegas is particularly vulnerable to cooking-related air quality issues, as they have nearly 700 restaurants per 100,000 people. However, these findings are likely applicable everywhere — and they've escaped unnoticed for a long time.

The National Emissions Inventory had previously assigned only 1% of harmful pollution to cooking activities, which means that they underestimated the impact of those activities by a factor of 5 to 10.

According to Matt Coggon, lead author of the study, this means that "cooking emissions could be the single largest missing source of urban VOCs in current air quality models, which could have important ramifications for air quality management."

Air quality is a big deal when it comes to health. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 800 people die prematurely every hour because of complications from air pollution. Other air quality-related health issues include increased risk of stroke, cancer, heart disease, and various respiratory illnesses.

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Researchers are hopeful that this finding can lead to changes in policy in order to regulate emissions more effectively, Coggon explained. 

"Over the years we've measured all sorts of different VOCs across the U.S. from different sources … [but] we kept seeing a specific class of compound in the urban measurements … that we couldn't explain," he said. "It's crucial to have the full picture of emissions and sources to help policy-makers understand the effectiveness of their decisions." 

For the average citizen, getting an air quality monitor and an air filter are quick, effective steps to reduce your exposure to air pollutants.

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