The Columbus Dispatch


By Mike Lafferty
The Columbus Dispatch

Saturday, July 3, 2004

With all the provisos about eating red meat, it seems chefs might be better off throwing away the steak after it’s grilled.

Now, researchers are saying just cooking the meat might be hazardous.

Charbroiling or frying meat releases oleic acid, an organic chemical touted for lowering cholesterol. When breathed, however, it might cause trouble.

Oleic acid, used to make cosmetics, lubricants and resins, is a potential pollutant that can reach high levels in areas where there are a lot of restaurants, said Heather Allen, a chemist at Ohio State University.

The mixture of oleic acid and other pollutants can irritate eyes and skin, and cause asthma, bronchitis and heart problems.

While Allen doesn’t recommend gas masks for backyard cooks this Fourth of July weekend, she and researcher Sandhya Gopalakrishnan do want to know what happens when airborne oleic acid combines with ozone and other atmospheric nasties.

When ozone combines with chemicals such as oleic acid, it can produce fatty acids and other health hazards.

David Ray, a spokesman for the American Meat Institute, is not fazed.

“Americans love to eat meat. People are better off worrying about the next ice age or global warming, whichever hypothesis you want to believe,” he said.

Luis Boskovski spends his days in front of a hot grill cooking up chicken, sausages and other meat sandwiches at his Broad Street stand.

“I don’t worry about it. Nobody can,” said Boskovski, who emigrated from Macedonia about 10 years ago.

Michael Shaw, a biochemist who runs Interscan Corporation, a Los Angeles company that manufactures equipment used to detect toxic gases, isn’t convinced oelic acid is a problem.

“I suppose you could measure a certain amount of suspended oelic-acid droplets in air,” he said. “The next question is, so what? I strongly doubt even the dose inhaled by an employee of one of these restaurants will hurt.”

The OSU research, part of a three-year, $570,000 National Science Foundation grant, is looking at how the surface of the oleic-acid molecule reacts with ozone, especially at different levels of humidity and precipitation.

Using lasers to examine the reaction between molecules of oleic acid and water, the scientists can observe the orientation of the compounds as well as their molecular structure.

Scientists already have examined how chemicals emitted by burning tobacco or in vehicle and lawn-mower exhaust combine with other airborne compounds.

“We do a lot of things to enhance particles, and they aren’t good for us,” Allen said.

The researcher, who once lived in smoggy California, doesn’t own a grill.

“I’ve only been here for four years,” she said. “When I do, it will probably be a George Foreman.”