Emissions from consumer products rival motor emission, study finds

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Researchers say everyday products contribute to air pollution as much as cars

A new study finds that consumer products like cosmetics, soaps, paints, household cleaners, and other chemical-containing products are now a key contributor to urban air pollution, rivaling emissions from cars.

As emission control technologies have helped to reduce car exhaust, consumer products have become just as big of a problem as smog.

Consumer products more volatile than previously thought

In the new study, researchers from the University of Colorado found that the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by consumer products may be two or three times greater than estimated by current air pollution inventories.

The EPA estimates that about 75 percent of VOC emissions come from fuel-related sources and about 25 percent come from chemical products. However, the new study -- which used current chemical use statistics and previously unavailable atmospheric data -- found that the split was actually closer to 50-50.

Although people use 15 times more fuel than petroleum-based chemicals, lotions and other household products contribute just as much to low air quality, said the study’s lead author Brian McDonald.

"As the transportation sector gets cleaner, the other sources of emissions we identified become more and more important," said McDonald, a research chemist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "A lot of chemicals we use in our everyday lives can impact air pollution.”

Indoor products affect outdoor air quality

The study's authors claim that it's how household products are used that make them a top source of air pollution. 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.

“Gasoline is stored in closed, hopefully airtight, containers and the VOCs in gasoline are burned for energy,” said co-author Jessica Gilman, a NOAA research chemist.

“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,” Gilman said.

Gilman hopes the study makes it clear that the products we choose to use do have an impact on the environment.

“The collective choices we make as a society, from our energy sources to which chemical products we use in our daily lives, are continually changing the composition of our atmosphere — Earth's atmosphere — the one atmosphere that contains all the air we will ever breathe," she said.

The full study has been published online in the journal Science.

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