American researchers have discovered high levels of synthetic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) using data from an extensive 2010 study in Los Angeles. Background levels of VOCs from plants and trees are natural, however the scientific community has been shocked to discover high atmospheric levels of anthropogenic VOCs. New research reveals that many VOCs are released by an extensive list of household products refined from petroleum, including paints, shampoos, hairsprays, nail polish, cleaning products, inks and glues. When they are released into the atmosphere these VOCs react with other chemicals to create fine particular matter called PM2.5. Through this, these products are polluting our homes, schools and workplaces.
Traditionally scientists have been aware of VOCs emitted from car exhausts, however the increasing worldwide use of cleaning and toiletry products means that these anthropogenic sources of VOCs have large environment impacts. Strict government regulation and pollution-reducing technology have reduced road traffic VOC emissions, however controlling the release of VOCs from household products is much harder because of the sheer number of cleaning and toiletry companies and the wide variety of chemicals they use. As indoor air isn’t a public good like outdoor air, it is difficult for the government to regulate. Despite this, Science’s study suggests that indoor VOC pollution is being released into the outdoor air in quantities large enough to affect human health.
To illustrate this, we need some number crunching. The World Health Organisation has identified air pollution as the largest environmental threat to human health, with 90% of people breathing in polluted air daily which is responsible for seven million deaths annually. Although the average Joe spends 90% of his time indoors, indoor air quality is roughly five times more polluted than that outdoors, and is responsible for more than four million of these deaths.
Volatile Organic Compounds are being released in quantities large enough to affect human health
VOCs contribute to this growing problem, with roughly 30% of all pollution particles consisting of organic compounds originating from VOCs. Some VOCs are toxic, causing headaches, nausea and asthma attacks. This is exacerbated by the exposure of VOCs to sunlight, which produces fine airborne particles that cause heart and lung disease.
So what exactly can we do about this? Many countries need to reconsider how to meet international regulations on emissions reductions. The British government is considering which steps it can take to reduce domestic emissions.
Ultimately it is difficult for an individual to make a significant impact, as even small usages of consumer producers can emit large quantities of VOCs. One thing that consumers can be aware of, however, is the use of the world “fragrance” in ingredients lists. This “fragrance” can potentially be one of up to 2000 different VOCs, such as limonene and beta-Pinene. Despite occurring naturally, the high concentrations of these used in cleaning solutions and air fresheners release significant amounts of VOCs.
These findings should, however, be taken with a pinch of salt. Although soaps and shampoos contain high levels of VOCs, don’t decide to therefore stop showering. The study didn’t explore any other air pollutants, such as the carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases emitted from cars, and overall these household products have a low environmental impact in comparison.