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The fumes from spray cleaners and perfumes are a major source of air pollution7 min read
Could cleaning sprays, perfumes, and paints cause as much trouble for the atmosphere as the contents of your car’s fuel tank? A study released today by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado at Boulder suggests that if we want to clean up the air we breathe, it’s time to start paying attention to common household products that release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). The study found that as fuel-related emissions have gotten cleaner due to regulations like the clean air act, they’ve gone from making up 75 percent of human-caused VOC emissions down to 50. The remaining half, according to the research, is primarily caused by chemical products.
If it seems a little strange to equate the environmental impact of cars to that of spray bottles under your sink, know that the researchers were a bit surprised by the finding too. “That’s really the punchline of this paper,” says Brian McDonald, the study’s lead author. As car emissions have gotten progressively cleaner due to regulations like the Clean Air Act, household products have started to make up a greater proportion of VOCs.
VOCs are naturally produced by plants, but about 30 percent of the emissions come from industrial processes, says Atul Jain, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. “They are short-lived but highly reactive gases that impact ozone and methane,” he says. VOCs actually act as a sink for methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases—as VOCs cycle through different chemical reactions, they form hydroxyl radicals (OH−) that take methane out of the atmosphere. While reducing greenhouse gases is probably a good thing, there are some negative side effects. When VOCs react with sunlight and gases in the atmosphere, Jain explains, the compounds form tropospheric ozone (commonly known as smog) and particulate matter that makes its way into respiratory tracts.
Smog is bad for our health, and VOCs also cause problems indoors (where the average American spends most of their time). These compounds won’t form smog inside—sunlight is a key ingredient for that—but they can cause irritation in the eyes and lungs, or headaches and allergic reactions.