The Effects of Consumer Products on Air Quality

Daily hygienic products such as deodorant, perfume, and soaps turn out to be some of the world’s biggest pollutants. Ironically, these products that enhance good smells contaminate the atmosphere at rates and levels similar to those of cars and other motor vehicles.

In a study published by the journal Science, researchers discovered that perfumes, paints, and many consumer products contribute to air pollution through the creation of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). These VOC’s combine with other air particles, intensifying and developing smog that leads to asthma, scarring of lungs, and a pollution named PM2.5. This type of pollution generates fine particles into the atmosphere that are linked to lung cancer, heart attacks, and even strokes.

The study was performed after researchers began to notice high concentrations of petroleum-based compounds in the air. Researchers hypothesized that the dramatic increase of these compounds could not have been due to the combustion of fossil fuels alone: they were right.

Previously, the production of smog mainly stemmed from VOC emissions from automobiles. However, since the 1970’s, regulations have reduced some unsustainable practices in manufacturing industries which has led to cleaner vehicle emissions. Partly due to the decrease of unhealthy car emissions, now, what is statistically seen is the increasing percent at which consumer products contribute to air pollution as a whole.

Brian C. McDonald, a scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science at the University of Colorado, said, “You can see these really rapid decreases in tailpipe emissions. It just made sense to start looking at other sources and seeing whether they could be growing in relative importance.”

Although quantitively greater amounts of fuels are consumed on a daily basis compared to products such as lotion or paint, fuels like gasoline don’t convert to dangerous compounds when burned. Despite contributing to global climate change when combusted into compounds like carbon dioxide, unlike consumer scented products, fuels don’t generate dangerous VOC’s that can lead to major health issues.

Researchers found that forty percent of chemicals manufactured into consumer products end up in the air. The majority of products contain VOC’s which after consumption, whether a small or large amount, end up in the atmosphere. Once there, these VOC’s react and contribute to harmful ozone and particle formations which can be fatal.

In a study of Los Angeles’ air quality, scientists discovered that approximately half of the VOC’s in Los Angeles are linked to consumer products. These calculations were constructed through a computer model that simulated Los Angeles’ air composition from fuel emissions and chemical consumer products. The computer system was able to calculate the amount of VOC’s released from personal care products and even paints on buildings.

Ravi Ramalingam, leader of the California Air Resources Board’s consumer products and air quality efforts said, “We’re looking for opportunities to reduce emissions from consumer products.”

He explained that the conclusions of the model weren’t shocking due to the decrease of dirty car and truck emissions in recent years; it simply made sense that paint and perfumes composed a bigger portion of VOC emissions.

Over the years, California has managed emissions from consumer products and federal regulations have also pursued the problem. Conscious and concerned consumers have also turned to more “natural” products. Despite this, researchers say this is not a complete solution. Harmful compounds can be generated from both synthetically or naturally produced items. An example lies in one class of compounds: terpenes. This compound is responsible for the pine or citrus smells in products and can be produced synthetically or even naturally from oranges. “Whether it’s synthetic or natural, once it gets into the atmosphere, it’s incredibly reactive,”stated Jessica B. Gilman, a research chemist at the National oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is involved in the study.

Though this study pin points some culprits of air contamination in recent years, the impact of thousands of other consumer products are yet to be researche. Gilman said, “one of the things that we’re hoping the public takes away from this is that our energy sources and the consumer products we use every day are continually changing the composition of our atmosphere.”

For now, research is still being done, but scientists suggest that people in society should learn how to limit their consumption of products like lotion, paint, or perfumes to have a healthier planet.