Scientists discover oxidants in indoor air from everyday cooking

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Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have cooked up something unexpected in the kitchen—not a new recipe, but a groundbreaking discovery about indoor air quality.

Their latest study, published in the journal Environmental Science: Atmospheres, has detected the presence of singlet oxygen, a type of oxidant, in indoor air for the first time due to cooking.

Oxidants are chemical compounds that can both benefit and harm our environment and health.

For instance, while ozone high up in the stratosphere protects us by blocking harmful ultraviolet radiation, at ground level it can harm our lungs. Oxidants like singlet oxygen can contribute to severe health issues such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease over time.

The UBC team focused on the effect of cooking, a common source of indoor air pollution. Cooking releases tiny particles and gases, including brown carbon, which can transform into oxidants when exposed to light.

Notably, professional chefs, who are frequently exposed to cooking emissions, have shown higher rates of certain chronic diseases, underscoring the potential health risks.

Traditionally, scientists believed that indoor environments didn’t have enough light to trigger much chemical activity.

However, modern kitchens are well-lit with various light sources, challenging this old assumption.

To explore this idea, the researchers cooked three different meals typical of breakfast, lunch, and dinner—pancakes, Brussels sprouts, and vegetable stir fry. They analyzed the air during these cooking sessions under three types of lighting conditions: UV light, sunlight, and fluorescent light.

Surprisingly, they found that singlet oxygen was produced at roughly the same levels during the preparation of each meal, regardless of what was cooked.

However, the concentration of this oxidant was highest in experiments involving sunlight, suggesting that kitchens with natural lighting might have more singlet oxygen.

This finding is particularly timely given the increased public interest in indoor air quality since the COVID-19 pandemic. The UBC researchers emphasize the importance of good ventilation and air filtration systems in kitchens to minimize exposure to potentially harmful aerosols produced while cooking.

Dr. Nadine Borduas-Dedekind, UBC chemistry assistant professor and the study’s senior author, remarked, “Our next steps include determining just how this oxidant might affect humans and how much we’re breathing in when we cook. Could it play a role in some cooking-related diseases?”

This study not only highlights a previously unknown indoor air pollutant but also encourages further investigation into how everyday activities like cooking can influence our health through changes in air quality.

Source: University of British Columbia.