2010 Feb. 15: NJ: New Jersey restaurants cooking up pollution along with pizza, hamburgers

New Jersey restaurants cooking up pollution along with pizza, hamburgers
Monday, February 15, 2010
Last updated: Monday February 15, 2010, 6:24 AM
BY JAMES M. O’NEILL
The Record
STAFF WRITER

When fast-food restaurants cook up cholesterol-heavy foods, they spew cholesterol and other particulates into the air, pollution that can affect the health of people with asthma and other breathing issues, researchers say.

State and federal air pollution efforts focus on power plants, factories and diesel trucks, but a significant source of particulate pollution in the metropolitan area comes from restaurant emissions — especially the smoke from wood-burning pizza ovens, said Monica Mazurek, a Rutgers University scientist who has been studying particulate matter in urban air for several decades.

Restaurants and wood-burning fireplaces and boilers discharge as much as 20 percent of the particulate matter in the air, and that smoke goes largely unchecked, researchers said.

"We basically have a brown cloud over this area from combustion sources," said Mazurek, a chemist in the university’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The smoke from restaurants and other wood-burning sources, from residential fireplaces to wood-fired water heaters, is taking on new significance as officials look to further reduce emissions in North Jersey, where the air repeatedly fails several federal standards for particulate levels.

"Wood has been identified as a significant component of regional particulate matter, and restaurants somewhat less so," said William O’Sullivan, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s air quality division. "We don’t have good data, and this is a good area for researchers to fill in the gaps. These sources can produce as much as 20 percent of all particulates."

Working with the air quality monitoring bureaus of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut between 2002 and 2007, Mazurek screened for 100 molecule markers in 700 samples taken at air monitoring stations.

"We found strange results," Mazurek said. "Most of the high concentrations [for wood-burning particulates] were in high-population areas — Elizabeth and Queens — and the numbers were also up during the summer. In Queens they’re not burning wood for heat in the late spring and summer. We believe they are being caused by restaurant emissions, including wood-burning ovens for pizzas, and they are not regulated."

 

Similar results around country

 

In the 1980s, Mazurek conducted surveys of the air in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and found similar results. Other studies have shown that restaurant emissions generate more than 20 percent of all particulates in the Los Angeles area, said Barbara Zielinska, an atmospheric science specialist at the University of Nevada’s Desert Research Institute.

Certain foods produce more particulates when cooked than others, Zielinska said. Hamburger meat is fatty and therefore produces more particulates than skinless chicken, for instance. In a 2003 technical paper, Zielinska noted that cholesterol is emitted into the air when meat is cooked on a char broiler.

The New Jersey DEP put together a group a few years ago to look at ways to address emissions from the 22,000 restaurants in the state as well as wood-burning sources. The work group recommended that New Jersey consider regulations for certain restaurant operations, such as those adopted by California.

In the Los Angeles area, restaurants are required to have special filters on high-volume facilities that operate chain-driven char broilers. In the San Francisco Bay area and the Fresno-San Joaquin Valley area, there are restrictions on regular under-fired char broilers that are not chain-driven. Installing the equipment to meet such restrictions can cost around $34,000 per facility.

Mike Donohue, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association, said: "Restaurants take their impact on the environment very seriously and the association has launched initiatives to show restaurants how they can lessen their negative impacts on the environment." At the same time, he said, "the restaurant business is a very narrow-margin industry, with often less than a 4 percent margin, even in good times."

While the DEP’s O’Sullivan said New Jersey has no plans at the moment to follow California’s lead on restaurant emissions, local restaurant owners worry that that it could happen, especially as New Jersey searches for more ways to clean up its long-standing pollution problems.

The cost of such filter systems would be prohibitive, especially to smaller restaurants, say some local owners.

"It would put us out of business — forget it," said Chet Simunovich, co-owner of Dino’s Coal-Fired Pizza in Old Tappan, which opened a year ago. He said his oven burns hot and clean and produces little particulate residue through its roof exhaust.

Marcello Czernizer, who owns two restaurants in Ridgewood, agreed. "Filters to capture emissions are probably a good idea for the environment, but the cost of installing them would be a priority issue for restaurants," said Czernizer, who opened Marcello’s Ristorante 15 years ago and The Stable restaurant, which features charcoal-grilled dishes, a year ago.

One restaurateur with a strong eco-friendly sensibility was surprised to hear that restaurant emissions can be a significant source of particulates.

"I knew it was bad to be wasting gas by keeping grills on all day, but I never thought about the pollution part," said George Georgiades, executive chef of Varka Estiatorio, a European seafood restaurant in Ramsey. Georgiades said he turns his grills off between lunch and dinner shifts to use less gas and reduce the restaurant’s carbon footprint. "I try to be as green as possible," he said.

Georgiades said the state should probably make it standard for restaurants to install filters to capture particulates and reduce air pollution. "You’d just have to make it part of the operating cost and have to pass the cost on to customers," he said.

While New Jersey is not considering any restaurant restrictions, it is considering "no burn" days for home fireplaces and wood-fired water heaters when air quality is low, said the DEP’s O’Sullivan. The strategy to cut down on smoke is used in some communities in Oregon and other Western states.

 

Weather a factor

 

Particulates in the smoke from wood-burning sources have a greater impact when a weather condition called a thermal inversion occurs. Normally, air is cooler higher in the atmosphere. That helps disperse pollution, because the lower, warmer air is lighter and buoyant and tries to rise, developing a natural ventilation that lifts particulates up and away from people, cleaning the air. When colder, heavier air settles into a valley, however, smoke stays close to the ground, trapping particulates and preventing them from escaping.

The state is also developing a rule to regulate wood boilers. These devices are becoming more popular as people look for alternatives to fossil fuels. "But people don’t recognize that smoke contains a high level of particulates," O’Sullivan said. "They’re under the assumption that because wood is natural, it should be clean. But these boilers are highly polluting."

The American-made devices are also inefficient. As much as 50 percent of the wood can be lost in the smoke as particulate matter rather than being fully burned, experts say. European wood-boiler manufacturers, driven by more stringent regulations, have developed far more efficient models that burn 85 to 90 percent of the wood content, reducing emissions.

New Jersey is a member of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management. The coalition sent a letter last year to the EPA urging it to update and develop regulations for wood-burning devices since existing regulations exempt a significant number of devices "that greatly, and adversely, affect the environment and public health."

While some particulates are worse than others, "they’re all dangerous to the public health," O’Sullivan said. "They can go deep into the lungs."

E-mail: oneillj@northjersey.com

Fit story on 1 page Page 1 2 >>

When fast-food restaurants cook up cholesterol-heavy foods, they spew cholesterol and other particulates into the air, pollution that can affect the health of people with asthma and other breathing issues, researchers say.

State and federal air pollution efforts focus on power plants, factories and diesel trucks, but a significant source of particulate pollution in the metropolitan area comes from restaurant emissions — especially the smoke from wood-burning pizza ovens, said Monica Mazurek, a Rutgers University scientist who has been studying particulate matter in urban air for several decades.

Restaurants and wood-burning fireplaces and boilers discharge as much as 20 percent of the particulate matter in the air, and that smoke goes largely unchecked, researchers said.

"We basically have a brown cloud over this area from combustion sources," said Mazurek, a chemist in the university’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The smoke from restaurants and other wood-burning sources, from residential fireplaces to wood-fired water heaters, is taking on new significance as officials look to further reduce emissions in North Jersey, where the air repeatedly fails several federal standards for particulate levels.

"Wood has been identified as a significant component of regional particulate matter, and restaurants somewhat less so," said William O’Sullivan, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s air quality division. "We don’t have good data, and this is a good area for researchers to fill in the gaps. These sources can produce as much as 20 percent of all particulates."

Working with the air quality monitoring bureaus of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut between 2002 and 2007, Mazurek screened for 100 molecule markers in 700 samples taken at air monitoring stations.

"We found strange results," Mazurek said. "Most of the high concentrations [for wood-burning particulates] were in high-population areas — Elizabeth and Queens — and the numbers were also up during the summer. In Queens they’re not burning wood for heat in the late spring and summer. We believe they are being caused by restaurant emissions, including wood-burning ovens for pizzas, and they are not regulated."

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