A hamburger, large coke & particulate matter on the side

Southern California is the proud birthplace of such hamburger icons as In-n-Out, Fatburger, and Tommy’s. Throw in a few muscle cars, sand, water, a palm tree, then mix in a considerable dose of air-pollution and you have mimicked the southland. What’s not to love?

Californians have largely replaced the muscle cars with Volts, Leafs, and Priuses in hopes of reducing air pollution. Are hamburgers the next great tradition to fall in the crusade for cleaner air? A study by University of California Riverside might be the starting point. UC Riverside Today quotes Bill Welch, the principal development engineer for the study at UC Riverside’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology as follows:

Emissions from commercial charbroilers are a very significant uncontrolled source of particulate matter…more than twice the contribution by all of the heavy-duty diesel trucks,” said Bill Welch, “For comparison, an 18-wheeler diesel-engine truck would have to drive 143 miles on the freeway to put out the same mass of particles as a single charbroiled hamburger patty.”

So are we to understand that 18-wheeler trucks really aren’t a big deal, or that burgers are bound to go the way of soda pop in New York? Whatever the case, no need to fear, says Mr. Welch. His research team has not only identified the problem, but invented a solution as well. UC Riverside Today reports:

A proposed control — a device that removes grease from the exhaust and traps it in water — will be tested tomorrow, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Sept. 19 at the CE-CERT test laboratory…. Researchers will evaluate the air stream released by the commercial charbroiler before and after they pass through the control device and measure how effective it is.

How convenient. The researchers have announced both the problem and a simple solution (“just buy this simple device, problem solved”) in the same week. Something about this story leaves me feeling slightly cynical. It reminds me somewhat of the guy who lit his girlfriend’s house on fire then played the hero by “rescuing” everyone inside.

If cooking a hamburger pollutes the air just as much as driving an 18-wheeler 143 miles, shouldn’t we expect In-n-Out employees to have all keeled over long ago? Let’s say an In-n-Out restaurant cooks 1,000 burgers in a work shift. That’s the equivalent of 143,000 miles (about 45 trips across the United States) of 18-wheeler pollution over an 8-hour period emitted into tight quarters. Of course, air vents send some of those hamburger emissions outside the restaurant, but there’s plenty that remains inside. And what about the poor burger-flipper? The self-conscious teenager is worried about what the greasy smoke is doing to his acne problem, but he should really be concerned about his poor lungs. Somebody get him out of there, quick!

Perhaps Mr. Welch didn’t discover a problem at all. Maybe his team discovered a particle-capturing contraption and invented the problem. Mr. Welch’s comparison to an 18-wheeler’s pollutants is a bit much like a deceptive advertisement. Is particle-emission the real problem for 18-wheelers? Or are other 18-wheeler emissions (e.g. carbon monoxide) what make diesel exhaust an environmental threat? Mr. Welch, after all, didn’t say that grilling a burger pollutes just as much as 143 18-wheeler miles, only that it emits as much particulate matter as does an 18-wheeler. The distinction can be easily overlooked, as in the Huffington Post’s article on the topic, “Pollution From Burgers Worse Than From Diesel Trucks, Study Says”. Actually, Mr. Welch was careful not to say that…only to give that impression.

Most troubling is that I can’t find the academic paper that accompanies Mr. Welch’s finding, only statements from the researcher as reported in the press. Mr. Welch seems to want to sell the solution before anyone has peer-reviewed the problem.

Now if Mr. Welch could invent a contraption that snatches hamburger fats and cholesterol from my bloodstream, I’d be the first guy standing in line. As for the particulate matter, I guess I’m just too much in love with the smell of a Southern California hamburger stand to be overly concerned.

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