Indoor air pollution is a major concern in commercial kitchens due to the high-temperature cooking processes used to handle large volumes of food. These processes emit harmful pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter (PM)—tiny solid or liquid particles that float in the air.
Research indicates that inhaling these airborne pollutants can cause inflammation in the brain, damage to brain cells, and decreased cognitive function, leading to memory impairment and slower reaction times. Although small enough to enter the bloodstream, these particles are large enough to block capillaries that nourish neurons, reducing blood flow over time and contributing to the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
For his senior design project, Brent Lorin, a recent graduate in applied mathematics and statistics, worked with Abhay Moghekar, an associate professor of neurology and research director of Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Cerebrospinal Fluid Center, to investigate PM pollution levels in commercial kitchens and explore ways to mitigate kitchen workers’ possible exposure—especially to particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns (about the size of a red blood cell), as those are considered the most dangerous.
“Cooking is an essential part of our daily lives. But most people are not aware of how our cooking techniques could directly impact our brain health. As I delved deeper into this fascinating subject, I felt inspired to raise awareness about the vital correlation between cooking and our neurological well-being,” said Lorin.
Lorin monitored the concentration of particulate matter in the air inside the Homewood Café Kitchen for 10 days using a PurpleAir sensor: a low-cost sensor that uses a laser to detect and analyze airborne particles such as dust, smoke, and pollutants. Data was collected every two minutes around the clock, and levels of different particulate matter sizes (such as 1.0, 2.5, and 10.0 microns) and volatile organic compounds were analyzed. Results revealed what Lorin called “significant exposure to particulate matter.”
The researchers then investigated whether the use of masks could reduce kitchen workers’ exposure to particulate matter. They outfitted the air-quality sensors with surgical, cloth, and N95 masks and compared the results using Z-score analysis—a statistical method that compares data by measuring how far a particular value is from an average group of data points. They found that while both N95 and surgical masks reduced exposure to a safe level, cloth masks did not.
The team also found a statistically significant improvement in pollution reduction depending on the mask; N95 was the best, followed by the surgical mask. Cloth masks were the least effective.
“I am pleased to have conducted this research, which I believe represents a critical first step in understanding the potential health risks that commercial kitchen workers face every day. I hope that these findings inspire others to delve deeper into the matter and consider how best to preserve worker health,” said Lorin.
The team members plan to continue their research and replicate this process inside other Hopkins kitchens such as the Johns Hopkins East Baltimore Hospital Kitchen and the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Courtyard Café.
“Collaborating with Brent was a game-changer. It allowed us to bridge the gap between research and clinical implications, where I gained a better understanding of data analysis, and Brent gained valuable insights into the health implications of our findings,” said Moghekar.