Household products like soap, perfume, and paint release as many toxic pollutants into the air as vehicles, according to a new study that scientists are calling "startling."
Researchers have warned that chemicals in products such as these are a major source of air pollution — significantly more so than previously thought — and that efforts to cut down on pollution should be adjusted.
Household products — with the study also citing pesticides, coatings, printing inks, adhesives, cleaning agents, and personal care products — actually rival vehicles as the top source of air pollution in cities, according to scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administer (NOAA).
“As transportation gets cleaner, those other sources become more and more important,” said Dr Brian McDonald, a researcher in the Chemical Sciences Division at the NOAA, which led the study.
“The stuff we use in our everyday lives can impact air pollution,” he added.
The NOAA, an agency within the US government that focuses on the oceans and atmosphere, published its findings in “Science” journal on Friday.
The problem with these everyday products is that they release what’s known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
These tiny particles are less than a 30th of the width of a human hair in diameter, reported the “i” newspaper, and get into the lungs and bloodstream, potentially causing asthma, heart disease, and strokes.
They’re not dangerous to breathe inside the house, but when they get outside they react with nitrogen oxides in the air and sunlight, and are converted into ozone or particulate matter to create smog.
That means that VOCs are much more of a problem in urban areas than in rural ones, because industrial and vehicular fumes are already much higher in cities.
Scientists already knew that everyday products were a source of VOCs, but what the new study reveals is that they emit VOCs on the same scale as vehicles.
“We were surprised to find out that the personal care products you find on your bathroom counter could be as large a source of VOCs as motor vehicles,” McDonald told the “i” newspaper. “And this is a startling find to atmospheric scientists.”
The report says that, as transport-derived emissions of VOCs have decreased, the relative importance of VOCs released by households has increased.
But traffic is still worse for air pollution overall, added the “i”, because it also emits harmful substances like nitrogen dioxide.
Air pollution is ranked to be the fifth highest health risk in the world. According to a report from the World Health Organisation (WHO), of all air pollutants, fine particulate matter has the greatest effect on human health.
Fine particulate matter, says the report, is associated with a broad spectrum of acute and chronic illness, such as lung cancer and cardiopulmonary disease.
Worldwide, it is estimated to cause about 8% of lung cancer deaths, 5% of cardiopulmonary deaths, and about 3% of respiratory infection deaths. The report adds that middle-income countries disproportionately experience the burden of particulate matter pollution.
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