Scientists have found that everyday household products, like soaps, paints and perfumes are causing nearly as much air pollution as cars and industries combined.
Most air pollutants come from the extraction, refining and use of fossil fuels. These pollutants include hundreds of different compounds that scientists clump into what they call Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). “Once they’re emitted into the atmosphere, they can lead to the formation of ground level ozone and particles, both of which are detrimental to human health,” says Jessica Gilman, an atmospheric chemist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and an author of the new study. However, in recent years household products have become a bigger source of air pollution, the team reports in today’s issue of the journal, Science.
They made similar observations for isopropanol, or rubbing alcohol, and acetone, the main ingredient in nail polish remover, and a whole range of other chemicals in everyday products like soaps, wall paint, printer ink, perfumes and pesticides.
The findings are important and surprising, says Albert Presto, an atmospheric scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. “We’re all conditioned to think about traffic and industry as the big drivers for air pollution and pollutants. And this study says, ‘wait a minute, a lot of it is really stuff we’re using inside our homes.'”
These household sources have emerged as big polluters because cars have become cleaner, says Jonathan Levy, an environmental health expert at Boston University. “As traffic sources decline, other sources become more and more important over time.”
Air pollution remains one of the top causes for the burden of disease worldwide. “Ozone can do things like worsen asthma, trigger asthma attacks,” says Janice Nolen, the assistant vice president of national policy at the American Lung Association. “It can also kill people, it can shorten lives.” Exposure to particulate matter has similar deleterious health effects.
So, the new study has implications for further reducing air pollution, says Presto, especially for cities that are struggling with meeting air pollution standards, like Los Angeles, which has one of the highest levels of ozone in the country. “You can only make cars so clean,” he says. “Maybe the way to get ozone below federal limits is to reduce emissions from indoors.”
The new study suggest we need “some national measures to help reduce emissions” from these everyday sources, says Nolen.