Calls for new rules to tackle household air pollution


A comprehensive assessment published a year ago in the journal The Lancet determined air pollution is one of the five greatest global mortality threats.

While true in the past, regulators and auto manufacturers have made emissions-limiting changes to fuels, engines and pollution-control systems. A new study shows that half of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in our air come from products like shampoo, perfume, deodorant, as well as household products like paint, bleach and pesticides. The US government agency works on range of issues including weather forecasts, severe storm warnings, climate monitoring, fisheries management, and coastal restoration.

This finding could be surprising to some, given that people use about 15 times more fuel by weight than they do consumer products containing petroleum-based compounds, researchers said. The findings were published February 16 in the journal Science.

"In the case of one types of pollution-tiny particles that can damage people's lungs-particle-forming emissions from chemical products are about twice as high as those from the transportation sector", found the researchers.

"The things I use in the morning to get ready for work are comparable to emissions that come out of the tailpipe of my auto", says Brian McDonald, an air-pollution researcher at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado, who led the work. "The stuff we use in our everyday lives can impact air pollution".

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These vapours are known as volatile organic compounds (VOC).

So what's the best way to tackle these unexpected sources of air pollution?

However, rather than being bad news, this is becoming apparent because of the headway countries in Europe and the U.S. have made to reduce vehicle pollution.

The scientists concluded that in the US, the amount of VOCs emitted by consumer and industrial products is actually two or three times greater than estimated by current air pollution inventories, which also overestimate vehicular sources.

Pound for pound, cleaning and grooming products actually have a more severe impact on the environment than those coming from cars.

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"We can confidently say that emissions of these nontraditional sources will negatively impact urban air quality pretty much anywhere they are used in large quantities - that is, pretty much any city around the U.S., Europe or the world", Cappa said.

The offending chemical products differ from vehicle emissions in an important way, says study co-author Jessica Gilman, a chemist at NOAA in Boulder.

While the compounds in gasoline are burned for fuel, researchers say some consumer products, like perfume, are "literally created to evaporate". "Think of using hand sanitizer in cold and flu season, scented products, or the time spent waiting for paint, ink and glue to dry. You don't do this with gasoline", Gilman explained.

The team found that they simply could not reproduce the levels of particles or ozone they measured in the Los Angeles area without including emissions from volatile chemical products.

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