According to a new study published in Chemistry and physics of the atmosphere.
While the majority of these components, called anthropogenic secondary organic aerosols (ASOA), are produced during the combustion of fossil fuels, some come from products of everyday use, such as cleaning products, pesticides or household paint.
“All these different smells you get from paint are different [volatile organic compounds] which are emitted “in the air, Benjamin Nault, researcher at Aerodyne Research, Inc. and lead author of the study, told EHN. When released, these gases, also known as VOCs, can turn into a new subset of stickier chemicals that clump together to form ASOAs.
Although the majority of these compounds are produced internally and may play a role in creating poor indoor air quality– they will eventually escape outside through open windows or tiny cracks in the foundation. In urban areas ASOA can form a significant part of the more commonly known pollutant, fine particles (PM2.5).
“There are more people living in urban areas,” says Nault—more than 50% of the world’s population, to be exact. With more people, “you need more of these everyday products to paint all apartments and townhouses, to lay asphalt, [and] to clean everything up, ”Nault said. Urban populations are expected to increase by 150% by 2045.
Related: How To Buy Cleaning Products – While Avoiding Poisons
Inhalation of any type of particle, but especially PM 2.5, can be harmful to human health. According to the American Lung Association, the potential health effects caused by prolonged exposure to PM 2.5 could include reduced lung function, the development of lung cancer, and an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. For this reason, many countries have developed laws that limit the amount of particulate-forming VOCs that can be released into the air. In the United States, the creation of these regulations, especially those that have targeted transport– led to a nationwide improvement in air quality.
Sadly, we can’t say the same for the pollution created by these consumer goods, also called volatile chemicals (PCVs). Unlike the success seen in the transportation sector, PCV emissions “remain relatively stable or increase,” Nault said, as they are “less regulated and more directly related to daily use and population.”
VVMs are also more difficult to regulate as a whole, as there are thousands of compounds emitted from a wide range of sources, from deodorant to asphalt to outdoor barbecues. Additionally, the tackiness that makes them so effective in forming ASOAs also makes them difficult to measure.
This “makes it very difficult to say,” what are the emissions that need to be regulated “… to improve public health,” Nault said.
Air pollution and premature death
Volatile chemicals are difficult to regulate as a whole as there are thousands of compounds emitted by a diverse range of sources from deodorant to asphalt to outdoor barbecues. (Credit: Pam Broviak / flickr)
The new study is based on previous job, led by the Cooperative Research Institute in Environmental Sciences, which showed that PCV emissions contribute a large part of the PM 2.5 formed in Los Angeles. Even before that, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “has long considered emissions of volatile chemicals in the environment. National emissions inventory (NEI), “a spokesperson told EHN via email, and assessed their impact on air quality since at least 1995.
But many of those findings were limited to the United States, which is why Nault and his international team of researchers broadened the scope of the research and incorporated air quality data collected from multiple continents. They found that 37% of ASOAs, on average, were derived from PCVs in cities in North America, Europe and Asia. “Other places in the world have both emissions from tailpipes, but also from these everyday products,” Nault said. “It’s a global thing.”
They then used models to correlate ASOA concentrations with premature mortality and compared their values to previous estimates. Nault and his team suspect that between 340,000 and 900,000 premature deaths are caused by ASOA.
“There weren’t many estimates of [ASOA-related] premature deaths in the literature before that, ”Nault said, but those that did exist significantly underestimated the number of deaths to which ASOA contributed.
It is likely that this percentage of PCV-derived pollution could increase in the future as transportation emissions continue to decline and the population of cities continues to grow. This is why, in the United States, the National emission standard for volatile organic compounds requires manufacturers to reduce the amount of VOCs emitted by consumer products to prevent the formation of ozone, another dangerous pollutant. However, when trading these compounds according to the rules, it is possible for companies to inadvertently add others that are better equipped to create ASOAs.
“One of the big things that we really need is to really take a look at these products that we use every day and look at what is actually in it and what comes out of it,” Nault said.
Regulation of consumer products
Proper regulation of both PCV and transportation emissions is paramount if we are to prevent premature deaths from ASOA, especially since these numbers could be an underestimate. “We think there are some differences in the stuff in the [aerosols] it could lead to very different differences in health and mortality, ”Nault said.
Research conducted by the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology (GIST) in South Korea confirms this. “At the moment, it is assumed that the toxicity is the same for all types of particles,” Kihong Park, professor at GIST, told EHN. However, after exposing human and animal cells to different types of particles, he concluded that this was probably not the case.
“As a rule, chemicals such as salt species, sulfates and nitrates are less toxic than [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons], heavy metals and organic compounds which are abundant in the particles generated by combustion, ”explained Park. Although he did not assess the toxicity of the particles derived from the PCV in his original study, Park suspects that they might be comparable to aerosols containing benzene. or toluene, which elicited some of the highest toxicity scores in his study.
“In the future, we will need to consider the differential toxicity of PM2.5, in addition to the amount of PM2.5, to better understand the effects of PM2.5 on human health,” Park said. “If the specific source of PM2.5 is more dangerous than others, we need to give more priority to controlling that source.”
The United States has made great strides in improving air quality. Much of this success can be attributed to reduced emissions from transportation. But we only focused on transportation because it “was very easy to recognize and say, ‘that’s where most of the pollution is coming from,” Nault said.
Now, however, it’s time to turn our attention to PCVs as well, he said.
The EPA spokesperson said the agency was planning “to adopt new methods to quantify emissions of volatile chemicals …”
Still, more research needs to be done. “It’s really hard trying to keep up with all these different [compounds]Many ingredient lists are considered proprietary information, and scientific equipment often struggles to measure all of the compounds emitted by PCVs.
But ‘once we know what [these compounds] are and [which ones] contribute more to those PM 2.5, “Nault explained,” so we can work on replacing these compounds with others “that might not produce as much pollution.
Banner photo credit: Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash