science of us

So You’re Saying It’s Fine to Stop Cooking and Cleaning

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I was at the airport recently, sitting at one of those tables where there’s an iPad offering a variety of services and foods to buy. I meant to use the table as a table, but after a while I found myself just watching the commercials playing on repeat on the iPad. There was one for Soylent, the powder/drink supplement that’s supposed to be as good as or better than actual food, nutrient-wise — something for people who are too busy to eat. Soylent has always seemed so strange, it was funny to watch how it was marketed. The commercial took place on a subway train, where various people were sloppily eating actual food — a sandwich, a lobster — and at the end, a man tidily drinks from a bottle of Soylent and seems superior, and the text says “Eat on the train.”

I thought of this ad while reading the recent New Yorker article about the air-quality dangers we may possibly be inflicting on ourselves while living indoors. The various chemical compounds that our home appliances, routines, and cleaning products emit — stove tops, ovens, sprays, foods, toiletries, pretty much anything with a smell — might contribute to health problems, although it’s not yet clear how much. Cooking, for instance, can release an alarming-seeming number of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), sometimes to the point where if it were outdoors, an EPA public safety warning would be warranted. As Nicola Twilley (also of the podcast Gastropod) writes:

when I told [a pulmonologist] that the carbon-dioxide reading for Thanksgiving had peaked at four thousand parts per million, he was taken aback. “Wow,” he said. “Those kinds of levels will lower your cognitive functioning, at least in the short term. Whether it has any long-term effect, we don’t know.”

I was waiting for Twilley to tell me what to do — I’m ready to buy an air purifier and to make fun of myself for doing so — but the stance at the moment seems to be that no one really knows what it all means. “We know barely the first thing about the [indoor] atmospheres in which we spend the vast majority of our time,” Twilley writes. Emerging research, however, suggests that our emissions are “more interesting, and potentially more lethal, than anyone had imagined.” (None of the researchers Twilley spoke with actually consider cooking-related emissions to be “worrying enough to forgo the benefits of a delicious, home-cooked meal,” although the question remains of “exactly which combinations of activities and environmental conditions might create harmful indoor air.”)

Reading between the lines for an action to take, I’m personally reconsidering bleach, toasters, and scented candles. (And if I were designing ads for Soylent, I might jump on the vagueness of this fear/danger, with something about how drinking Soylent keeps down cooking-related indoor air-pollution levels, not that I am actually endorsing Soylent.)

I recently made a countertop-cleaning mixture of white vinegar and water, like probably everyone else also has, and Twilley’s story made me curious about vinegar’s VOC levels, just in case. Vinegar is apparently harmless on that front, too — and it warrants a mention in a recent New York Times story about how to clean and eat more healthfully, with regard to hormone-disrupting chemicals. I’d say plants could also help with all of this if we hadn’t recently learned that they are doing nothing.

So You’re Saying It’s Fine to Stop Cooking and Cleaning