EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/Where’s the beef?
While some cities have been taking bites out of their air quality problems, Houston scientists have been sinking their teeth into one of the causes of their city’s pollution: barbecued meat. Researchers at Rice University will be publishing the results of a 16-month study analyzing, among other things, the meat particles dangling in the city’s air. That “particulate matter” is of particular interest to Houston’s barbecuing community, because the study has fingered the fatty fumes — the result of grilling meat over hot coals — as a contributor to the city’s unsightly smog.
The study’s sizzle centers around Houston’s ongoing concern with air pollution, which potentially affects the community’s physical and economic health. Only a few years ago, Houston exceeded the federal limits for ozone, but not in the five other pollutants used to measure air quality.
In fact, like other large cities plagued with pollution problems, Houston has been slowly improving its air quality over the past 20 years, according to Matt Fraser, a Rice University environmental engineer and one of the study’s principal investigators. The university’s research was funded by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Protection Agency and will become part of a larger project, the Texas Air Quality Study, which is examining several subjects including the levels of particulate matter and ozone in the air.
So what’s the big beef with grilled meat? Fraser specifically found polyunsaturated fatty acids — a compound only found in meat — floating in the hazy Houston skies. Already exceeding federal smog guidelines, the city must meet federal air quality standards for particulate matter by December 2004 or be forced to determine which pollution sources to extinguish.
Fraser, however, is not singling out grilled meat as the main culprit of the city’s bad air. He says meat cooking is more important than wood burning but less than diesel fuel emissions.
Nevertheless, Texas is only getting a taste of the regulatory consequences of having fatty air. For example, Maryland has required an air permit for owners of industrial-sized charbroilers and barbecue pits since 1984. And, when Los Angeles discovered that meat particles constituted about one-fifth of the particulate elements found in its air pollution — more than car exhaust, aircraft fumes and smoke from forest fires — the state forced restaurants using charbroilers to install ceramic filters on their exhaust vents. California is considering enacting more stringent rules to meet small particle air standards by 2010.
However, Texas isn’t Maryland and it’s not on the same planet as California; consequently, I suspect that a state that is home to five barbecue associations and hosts more than 400 barbecue cookoffs won’t take too kindly to regulating one of its obvious passions. I can see the bumper stickers now: “Don’t mess with my meat,” and “I’ll stop grillin’ when they pry my cold dead hands from around my fork.”