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Smog Tasting: Distant Environments, Science Communication, Metaphors, and Moral Disgust

June 14, 2015

GenevaSmogThis tweet popped up during a symposium of the International Environmental Communication Association taking place this week in Boulder, Colorado.

One tactic is Smog Tasting.

Smog Tasting is an experimental food cart for simulating the smell and flavor of air pollution from various places and times. CoClimate recently debuted the Smog Tasting chamber as the work of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and Nicola Twilley during the exhibition BREATHE at the World Meteorological Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

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The Smog Chamber smog-tasting cart builds on earlier smog-tasting work conducted by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy. In 2011, inspired by reading that an egg foam is 90-percent air in Harold McGee’s guide to culinary chemistry, On Food and Cooking, the Center took whisks, mixing bowls, and egg whites out onto the streets of the city, using the structural properties of meringue batter to harvest air pollution in order to taste and compare smog from different locations.

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Inspired by this project, Edible Geography-author Nicola Twilley began to speculate about the concept of “aeroir,” and the idea that urban atmospheres capture a unique taste of place. She researched the history and technology of smog science, visiting the atmospheric process chambers at the Bourns College of Engineering, at the University of California, Riverside, in order to learn how scientists studying the relationship between emissions and atmospheric chemistry actually create synthetic smog in the lab.

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Smog is formed by a mixture of different pollutants reacting together—a reaction that is usually catalyzed by “baking” the chemical mixture in the sun. To recreate air pollution in the lab, scientists inject precise amounts of different precursor chemicals into a Teflon chamber, where they are cooked under hundreds of UV lights. Different precursor emissions and weather conditions produce different kinds of smog, each with distinct chemical characteristics—and a unique flavor. Indeed, Arie Haagen-Smit, the man known as the “father” of air pollution science, was originally a flavor chemist who rose to prominence thanks to his work on pineapples. “I am engaged at the present time on a super flavor problem—the flavor of Los Angeles,” he wrote in the 1950s, announcing his shift in research from fruit flavors to smog science.

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Working together, and with advice from Professor David Cocker and Mary Kacarab at UC Riverside, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and Edible Geography have designed and fabricated a small-scale smog chamber and developed a range of synthetic smog recipes. For Ideas City 2015, they recreated a classic London peasouper, the atmosphere of Los Angeles in the 1950s, a present-day Atlanta air-quality-warning event, and a present-day Central Valley agricultural smog. These four places and times showcase the four classic “types” that atmospheric scientists use to characterize smogs: London is a sulfur- and particulate-heavy fog, whereas 1950s Los Angeles is a photochemical smog created by the reactions between sunlight, NOx, and partially combusted hydrocarbons. At its worst, Atlanta’s smog is similar in composition to that of Los Angeles, but with the addition of biogenic emissions (an estimated 10 percent of emissions in Atlanta are from a class of chemicals known as terpenes, from organic sources such as pine trees and decaying green matter). Finally, the Central Valley iteration incorporates the ammonia and amines that accompany feedlot agriculture, resulting in a distinctive alkaline smog. Visitors will be able to choose which locations they wish to taste and compare in meringue form.

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The Center for Genomic Gastronomy and Edible Geography hope that the meringues serve as a kind of “Trojan treat,” raising awareness of the impact and ubiquity of air pollution. Inhaling smog over extended periods is extremely damaging to human health. In New York City, which has the 12th worst ozone levels in the nation according to the American Lung Association’s Annual “State of the Air” report, air pollution levels are highest in neighborhoods that are majority non-white and low-income—a particularly insidious form of environmental injustice. By transforming the largely unconscious process of breathing to the conscious act of eating, the smog-tasting cart creates a visceral, thought-provoking interaction with the air all around us.

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