Perfume, Cleaning Products Cause as Much Air Pollution as Cars

The next time you go to spritz your favorite perfume or clean the bathtub, remember that you are contributing to the overall air pollution in your city–as much, say scientists of a new study, as the traffic outside your apartment. That is because the chemical compounds in these personal care and household care products are often petroleum-based, and as researchers discovered in a new scientific study, they hang around polluting the air as much as automobiles and trucks.


Consumer and industrial products now a dominant urban air pollution source

New study finds surprisingly high contribution from paints, pesticides, perfumes as vehicle emissions drop

“Lotions, paints and other products contribute about as much to air pollution as the transportation sector does.”

-Dr. Brian McDonald, lead author, CIRES scientist working in NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Division

In the case of one type of pollution — tiny particles that can damage people’s lungs — particle-forming emissions from chemical [personal and household] products are about twice as high as those from the transportation sector, his team found.

The study

For the new assessment, the scientists focused on volatile organic compounds or VOCs. VOCs can waft into the atmosphere and react to produce either ozone or particulate matter — both of which are regulated in the United States and many other countries because of health impacts, including lung damage.

The results

The scientists concluded that in the United States, the amount of VOCs emitted by consumer and industrial products is actually two or three times greater than estimated by current air pollution inventories, which also overestimate vehicular sources…The new study, with its detailed assessment of up-to-date chemical use statistics and previously unavailable atmospheric data, puts the split closer to 50-50…

The team was particularly interested in how those VOCs end up contributing to particulate pollution. A comprehensive assessment published in the British medical journal Lancet last year put air pollution in a top-five list of global mortality threats, with “ambient particulate matter pollution” as the largest air pollution risk. The new study finds that as cars have gotten cleaner, the VOCs forming those pollution particles are coming increasingly from consumer products.

“Indoor concentrations are often 10 times higher indoors than outdoors, and that’s consistent with a scenario in which petroleum-based products used indoors provide a significant source to outdoor air in urban environments.”

-Dr. Allen Goldstein, University of California Berkeley


The research was supported by NOAA, the CIRES Visiting Fellowship Program, Aerodyne Research, Inc, the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation.

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder


Journal Reference: Brian C. McDonald, et al. Volatile chemical products emerging as largest petrochemical source of urban organic emissions. Science, 2018; 359 (6377): 760-764 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0524