August 12, 2022

Kitchen and Restaurant Air Quality Monitoring: A Case Study

Public Research: Case Studies

Research Organization: 

Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University (FIU)

Howook Chang DBA, Associate Professor, used Atmotube PRO to monitor air quality during cooking classes in the lab kitchens at FIU. His findings will be presented at the ​​ICHRIE Conference, the academic conference organized by the International Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education.

Problem Overview: 

Good indoor air quality (IAQ) in commercial and educational kitchens is critical, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research shows that cooking creates indoor air pollution, including particulate matter (PM) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Exposure to poor kitchen air quality may negatively affect the health of chefs and students working in restaurants or lab kitchens. Monitoring and maintaining good IAQ in the kitchen is essential to prioritize the respiratory health of employees and students.

Case Study Objective:

This case study aims to answer these questions:

  • Are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter (PM) present during cooking class?
  • How does the air quality in a lab kitchen during a four-hour class compare to WHO IAQ guidelines?
  • Which type of air pollution from cooking poses the most significant health concern?

The lab kitchens at FIU are designed to replicate commercial kitchens. As such, results from this case study can also give insight into the potential for air pollution exposure in commercial restaurant kitchens.

Methodology:

In this case study, Atmotube PRO was used to measure IAQ in lab kitchens at FIU during four separate cooking classes. Atmotube PRO recorded PM1, PM2.5, PM10, and TVOC measurements every minute and stored them in its internal memory. All air quality data was accessed via a smartphone app and downloaded in a CSV file.

The field test was performed over two days, with two four-hour classes each day. The average class size was 20 students. It’s about 10,000 square feet, and it serves as a production kitchen for a 100-seat dining room. All cooking equipment runs on propane gas, and the lab kitchen has a Type-I kitchen hood system that’s activated automatically.

During each class, one student and one instructor wore the Atmotube PRO clipped to the upper left arm of their chef coat. Since the device is small and lightweight, it can easily be worn near the face to give an accurate picture of the wearer’s pollution exposure.

Results:

For the smallest particles, PM1, four-hour average concentrations weren’t high enough for concern. However, PM1 reached peak concentrations of 137 μg/m3 when a student sauteed fish with oil on a propane gas stove. WHO air quality guidelines don’t specify recommended levels for PM1, but the recommended limits for PM2.5 and PM10 in a 24-hour period are 15 and 45, respectively.

A similar pattern was observed for PM2.5, PM10, and VOCs. Peak levels were significantly higher than the established WHO standards, but average levels stayed within the guidelines. The highest levels of PM pollution were recorded when students cooked with oil, butter, or simmering stock.

TVOC levels rose consistently throughout the day. This shows two things: TVOCs accumulate from cooking over time, and the restaurant HVAC system doesn’t provide enough ventilation to air out the kitchen between classes. The chef instructor was exposed to VOCs over the acceptable limit of 500 ppb during the second and third cooking classes. 

Discussion:

Airborne pollutants from domestic and commercial cooking can reach dangerous levels when heating cooking oil, fat, and other food ingredients, especially at high temperatures. Natural gas and propane stoves can also release carbon monoxide, formaldehyde (a VOC), and other harmful pollutants into the air.

The results of this study show the importance of monitoring and maintaining good indoor air quality in restaurants and lab kitchens. IAQ monitors, such as Atmotube PRO or Atmocube, can help pinpoint high-pollution cooking activities that necessitate increased ventilation in the kitchen. Public IAQ displays with real-time data can also be a visual aid for chefs and students who will benefit from improving kitchen air quality. 

This case study analyzed air pollution levels in lab kitchens, but similar air quality concerns can arise in commercial kitchens as well. Further IAQ testing in commercial kitchens can help shed a brighter light on this problem. It’s also important to spread awareness in the hospitality industry about maintaining kitchen air quality for the health of chefs and students.

Accurate, real-time air quality measurements are the first step to improving IAQ in the kitchen and providing a healthy, safe cooking environment. As the study author states, “What is measured can surely be improved.” 

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