Household products cause as much air pollution as cars, say experts

Consumer and industrial products are dominant urban air pollution source: study

You wear perfume or use scented products so that you or your neighbour can enjoy the aroma.

"What's exciting about this work is that it shows that everyday consumer choices can have an impact on air quality in the USA", said Christopher Cappa, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UCD and a co-author on the paper. "In all of these instances, we are waiting for these volatile chemical products to evaporate".

Despite the fact people still use a lot more fuel than petroleum-based compounds in chemical products, there are some fundamental differences which can increase the impact of these household items, the researchers said.

Scientists in Los Angeles said the amount of chemical vapours sent into the atmosphere from such products was now roughly the same as from transport.

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"Engineering changes to vehicle exhausts have dramatically reduced the amount of pollution produced per mile, meaning that (a) there is now less to be gained from further changes to cars and (b) the public need more information on how their activities, apart from driving, contribute to current pollution levels".

Rather than scare-mongering, the authors of the new paper say this is good news because other sources of pollution can be identified.

"Gasoline is stored in closed, hopefully airtight, containers and the VOCs in gasoline are burned for energy", said Jessica Gilman, a co-author of the report. "You don't do this with gasoline", Gilman said.

That led researchers to start looking for the unique chemical fingerprints of solvents and compounds used in consumer products, Gilman said.

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The study, which was led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and published in the journal Science, comes as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released its latest emissions figures. The new study, with its detailed assessment of up-to-date chemical use statistics and previously unavailable atmospheric data, puts the split closer to 50-50.

Previous EPA estimates held that about 75 percent of fossil VOC emissions came from fuel-related vehicle sources and about 25 percent from chemical products.

Based on these findings, air quality models "must be adapted to capture the changing pattern of emissions", Alastair Lewis, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of York in England, wrote in an accompanying editorial.

Further research is needed to figure out exactly which VOCs are more active in smog formation, so they can be taken out of circulation, Cappa and McDonald said. They point out that when a product that once gave off a smell no longer smells, it's because chemicals that made the scent drifted off into the air.

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They add that these inventories likely also overestimate the motor vehicle sources. A comprehensive assessment published previous year in the journal The Lancet determined air pollution is one of the five greatest global mortality threats.

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