For many years, motor vehicle emissions were the primary source of air pollution in urban areas. But with increased regulations and better engines, that has changed. While industry professionals and government leaders worked to address pollution from cars, little notice was given to the effects of other commonly used consumer products. Now, research shows that chemicals in soaps, perfumes, household cleaners, pesticides and paints have been recognized to pollute our air about as much as car emissions.
The research, recently published in the journal Science, found that many of the products we use daily in our homes contain compounds refined from petroleum.
"People use a lot more fuel than they do petroleum-based compounds in chemical products--about 15 times more by weight, according to the new assessment. Even so, lotions, paints and other products contribute about as much to air pollution as the transportation sector does," Dr. Brian McDonald, a researcher in the Chemical Sciences Division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who led the study, said in a press release.
"As transportation gets cleaner, those other sources become more and more important," McDonald added. "The stuff we use in our everyday lives can impact air pollution."
The new assessment focused on what are referred to as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds can seep into the atmosphere, reacting to create particle or ozone matter, which are regulated in the U.S. and many other countries. They can cause a variety of health problems, including damage to the lungs.
Most people living in urban areas assume that car pollution is still the biggest problem, as it was for the past few decades. But according to the new NOAA report, that is no longer the notable threat. In fact, researchers concluded that the level of VOCs emitted by consumer and industrial products is "two or three times greater than estimated by current air pollution inventories, which also overestimate vehicular sources."
While the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 75 percent of fossil VOC emissions came from fuel-related sources, and just 25 percent from consumer and industrial products. The NOAA analysis puts the ratio around 50-50.
"Concentrations are often 10 times higher indoors than outdoors, and that's consistent with a scenario in which petroleum-based products used indoors provide a significant source to outdoor air in urban environments," McDonald said.
It may seem strange to some that common products, such as perfume and household cleaners, could have such a major impact on pollution. But the effects of common household items starts to make sense when we consider how they are used and stored.
"Gasoline is stored in closed, hopefully airtight, containers and the VOCs in gasoline are burned for energy," NOAA atmospheric scientist Dr Jessica Gilman, a co-author of the new paper, told The Independent.
"But volatile chemical products used in common solvents and personal care products are literally designed to evaporate. You wear perfume or use scented products so that you or your neighbor can enjoy the aroma. You don't do this with gasoline."
Experts are lauding the new study for pointing out sources of pollution that often get little attention.
"This research is a useful reminder that discussions of air pollution need to consider all sources of pollutants and that measures targeting cars only address part of the problem," Professor Anthony Frew, a respiratory medicine specialist at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said.
But Frew also cautioned that the study doesn't mean regulating traffic emissions is unimportant.
"Traffic remains an important source of pollution and we still need to reduce the number of vehicle-miles driven per year by personal and commercial vehicles," he said.