Complete guide to kitchen air quality (common pollutants, health effects and prevention)

All sorts of potentially harmful air pollutants can be present in the kitchen. This post discusses common air pollutants found in the kitchen, their potential negative health effect, and what you can do about them.

The main air pollutants found in the kitchen are:

  • carbon monoxide (CO)
  • radon
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • Formaldehyde

You can find an extensive overview of these pollutants, their sources, health effects, and preventive measure at the end of this post.


Good kitchen practices to prevent air pollution

To prevent and mitigate the effects of air pollutants in you kitchen, there are a few good habits that you should adopt.

Good kitchen habits help reduce the formation of air pollutants or reduce your exposure to them. Constant and sufficient ventilation as well as your extractor hood allow for clean air and the removal of pollutants. Additionally, using natural cleaning products and airing while cleaning are safe practices.


Properly ventilate the kitchen at all times

Ventilating allows outside air to enter and refresh your kitchen. This will carry away air pollutants and stop mold build-up due to condensation. Additionally, make sure to clean your vents and extractor hood regularly so they maintain optimal functionality.

To make sure your kitchen is always perfectly ventilated, you should consider purchasing an air quality monitor. An air quality monitor provides continuous data on the quality of your indoor air and makes sure you always know when to increase ventilation. At the end of this post I discuss an excellent air quality monitor.


Always turn on the extractor hood

Always turn on the hood when you are cooking and run it on the highest option you are comfortable with. Additionally, whenever you are not using all the stove burners, try to use the ones that are best vented by the extractor hood. These are usually the ones at the back. Also, make sure the extractor hood is always clean and in good condition.


Use natural cleaning agents

Surprisingly, cleaning agents are a source of air pollution. Exposure to compounds emitted from cleaning agents depends on many factors, including their composition and reactive chemistry. It is safest to use natural cleaning agents.



The most common kitchen air pollutants


Carbon monoxide (CO)

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless odorless gas that is formed by incomplete burning of carbon-based fuels. Incomplete burning happens in all fires but also in (efficient) appliances.

The most common sources of carbon monoxide are central heating systems and kerosene and gas space heaters such as geysers and boilers. Other sources of CO are gas stoves and the fireplace. Additionally, CO can enter the house via leaking chimneys and vents. Tobacco smoke is another source of carbon monoxide.


Health effects of carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide, when inhaled, quickly enters the bloodstream and reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. This results in oxygen deprivation which can be deadly in high doses and causes all kinds of health effects. The following figure shows the health effects of CO exposure related to an increase of CO exposure. (source: World Health Organisation)

Keep in mind that health effects depend on many factors such as level of exposure, duration of exposure, and the overall health of the person exposed.


Diagram showing the health effects related to carbon monoxide exposure relative to the amount of exposure.
Figure 1. CO exposure and health effects


Young children are most at risk

Children are more susceptible to indoor air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, because they inhale more air and thus pollutants per kg of bodyweight than adults. Additionally, children’s airways are narrower than adults, so irritation and swelling of the airways can result in relatively greater airway blockage.


How to prevent carbon monoxide exposure

Exposure to carbon monoxide can be minimized by taking care of the following:

  • proper installation, maintenance and use of combustion appliances
  • if you can, replace your gas stove with an electric stove
  • install a carbon monoxide detector
  • clean your fireplace and chimney once a year
  • ventilate constantly
  • clean ventilation vents regularly


Carbon monoxide detectors

To make sure you are safe from carbon monoxide, a CO detector is a must-have. Ideally, you place one near your boiler or geyser, and one in the bedroom to make sure you are safe during the night.

A carbon monoxide detector is cheap and you can simply order them on amazon via the picture below.


Radon gas

In the United States, radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Radon is prevalent in many parts of the world. You can read all about radon in our article: What is radon? (origin, health risk, and preventive measures).


Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

The kitchen is a place that gets cleaned regularly and thoroughly. However, common household cleanings products release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when used and stored. These compounds are mostly human-made chemicals that are emitted as a gas from solids or liquid. There are very many different volatile organic compounds and their effects can range from highly toxic to no known negative health effects.

The most common sources of VOCs in the kitchen are:

  • paint
  • cleaning products
  • deodorizers
  • dry cleaning fluids


Health effects of VOC exposure

Keep in mind that health effects depend on many factors such as level of exposure, duration of exposure, and the overall health of the person exposed.


Acute health effects of VOC exposure include:

  • headache, dizziness, loss of coordination, nausea, visual disorder
  • irritation of eyes and respiratory tract
  • allergic reactions including asthma and rhinitis


Chronic exposure to VOCs can lead to the following effects:

  • damage to kidney, liver, blood system, and central nervous system
  • some VOCs may cause cancer. (Formaldehyde)


How to prevent VOC exposure

Exposure to volaticle organic compounds can be minimized by taking care of the following:

  • store cleaning agents according to the manufacturers instructions
  • unused or little-used containers need to be thrown away safely
  • never mix cleaning agents unless specified by the manufacturer
  • make sure to provide enough fresh air when using cleaning agents
  • use natural no-VOC cleaning agents
  • general: use low VOC paints in your house



Formaldehyde

Technically formaldehyde is a common VOC. However, I want to mention it separately because it is stated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to potentially cause cancer. It is a colorless, pungent-smelling gas and can be released from insulation and building materials such as composite wood. Other sources are:

  • cleaning products, fabric softeners and conditioners
  • carpeting
  • glues and resins
  • tobacco smoke
  • a type of insulation called urea-formaldehyde insulating foam UFFI)


How to prevent formaldehyde exposure

Exposure to formaldehyde can be minimized by taking care of the following:

  • use formaldehyde-free or natural cleaning products
  • apply natural insulation and building materials
  • use natural no VOC carpeting and rugs (I recommend naturalarearugs.com)


Additionally, according to the EPA, the rate at which formaldehyde is released is increased by heat and may be affected by humidity. Therefore, maintaining moderate humidity and temperature levels can reduce exposure. (source)

The EPA advises air dehumidifiers to control indoor humidity.


Air dehumidifiers

There are many dehumidifiers in a wide price range and for many different areas such as the wardrobe, desktop, or bedroom. I studied some of the available dehumidifiers that are affordable and still provide for the needs of a kitchen where humidity increases significantly during cooking.

Most dehumidifiers are designed as a small device for the bedroom or office to provide some comfort. But because of the relatively high humidity in the kitchen, I think you need a dehumidifier that is suitable for a larger space than the actual size of your kitchen.

Additionally, you will want a good water tank capacity so you do not have to empty the water tank all too often. Therefore I would recommend this dehumidifier, found on amazon.


Air quality monitors

To make sure you are always aware of the levels of VOCs and other harmful substances in your kitchen, an air quality monitor is an excellent tool. An air quality monitor can measure airborne chemicals, temperature, and humidity, depending on the device.

I found a Norwegian company called airthings, that produces excellent air quality monitors. They are easy to operate (just wave your hand in front of the device) and send their data to an app on your phone.

Discount on Airthings air quality monitor

By using this link to the Airthings wave Mini air quality monitor, you will get about 10% discount! The Airthings Wave Mini is a small battery-operated device that measures total VOCs, temperature, and humidity levels.

If you are willing to spend a bit more to be absolutely sure about your indoor air quality the Airthings Wave Plus is an excellent option. This air quality monitor not only measures VOCs, humidity, and temperature but also CO2 levels, air pressure, and radon. It is suitable for offices and homes and similar to the Wave Mini comes with an app that shows your latest data. By using this link to the Airthings Wave Plus air quality monitor you will get a discount of about 10%!


Overview table

Table 1. Overview of common kitchen pollutants, health effects and preventive measures

Common kitchen pollutantsSourcesHealth effectsPreventive measures
Carbon monoxide (CO)– burning fuels such as natural gas
– water heaters
– tobacco smoke
ranging from fatigue to potential death– proper maintenance and use of appliances
– install a CO detector
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)– paint
– cleaning products
– deodorizers
– dry cleaning fluids
acute:
– headache, dizziness, nausea, irritation of eyes and respiratory tract
chronic:
– organ damage
– proper use and storage of cleaning agents
– provide fresh air while cleaning
– use natural cleaning agents
– use low VOC paints
Formaldehyde– cleaning products
– glues and resins
– insulation material
– composite wood
– potentially causes cancer– use natural cleaning products
– use natural insulation and building materials