The smell of cooking food is actually air pollution, study finds

(KTLA) – It’s hard to resist the delicious smell of food cooking at restaurants, food trucks and street vendors. However, a new government study suggests those aromas may be negatively impacting air quality.

Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have released their findings from a multiyear study of what they call “underappreciated sources” of urban air pollution.

They focused on three cities: Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Boulder, Colorado, where they measured human-caused volatile organic compounds (VOCs) related to cooking.

“If you can smell it, there’s a good chance it’s impacting air quality,” researchers summarized.

“Over the years, we’ve measured all sorts of different VOCs across the U.S. from different sources, like vehicles, wildfire smoke, agriculture, and consumer products,” wrote Matt Coggon, the study’s lead author.  “We kept seeing a specific class of compound in the urban measurements, what we call long-chain aldehydes, that we couldn’t explain from these other sources.” 

Researchers found that Las Vegas, which has one of the highest densities of restaurants in the U.S., has persistent air quality issues — especially along The Strip. On average, 21% of the total mass of VOCs present in Vegas’ outdoor air were from “cooking activities,” NOAA estimated, and generally ranged from 10% to 30%.

NOAA also found elevated levels in L.A. and downwind in Pasadena, California.

Overall, researchers concluded that air pollution from cooking is vastly underestimated and could account for nearly a quarter of VOCs in urban areas. The problem is even more acute indoors and inside homes.

What this means for air quality management remains to be seen. Having the data, Coggon believes, is the first step.

“It’s crucial to have the full picture of emissions and sources to help policymakers understand the effectiveness of their decisions,” Coggon said. 

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