Household products can really pollute the air | Science News for Students

Household products can really pollute the air

Cleansers, paints, glues and more spew gases that pose a risk to health and the environment
Feb 27, 2018 — 6:45 am EST
household cleansers
Everyday products like these emit a bouquet of chemicals that contribute vapors into the air. A spritz of cleanser or spray of some disinfectant will have a small effect. Frequent use of these products by millions of people, however, can really pollute the air.

AUSTIN, Texas — Families wanting to reduce their impact on air pollution might need to do more than trade in a gas-guzzling car, a new study reports. It found that simple household items also are dirtying urban air. One example: those nicely scented air fresheners. 

Paints, cleaning supplies and personal care products (think deodorants and hair sprays) are among common products that send a host of chemicals into the air. These air pollutants — some of them sweet smelling — now contribute as much to lung-irritating ozone and to tiny airborne particulates as does the burning of gasoline or diesel fuel.

It might not seem that way, but the finding is a mark of success, says Brian McDonald. He is a chemist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, Colo. He also was an author of the new study. And he shared some of his team’s findings February 15 during a news conference. It took place here, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His group’s data also were published February 16 in Science.

Steps to clean up car exhaust over the past few decades have had a huge effect, says McDonald. As a result, he notes, in cities “the sources of air pollution are now becoming more diverse.”

Spyros Pandis works at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. He’s a chemical engineer who did not take part in the study. “When you have a big mountain in front of you,” he explains, “it's difficult to know what lies behind it.” Now that big sources (such as traffic emissions) are falling, other sources become more visible.

The new study focused on a class of pollutants known as volatile organic compounds. Most are derived from petroleum or other fossil fuels. These VOCs are hundreds of diverse chemicals that easily evaporate. These gases then may linger in the air.

Some VOCs can be harmful when directly inhaled. Bleach and paint fumes make people lightheaded, for example. But beyond their immediate effects, VOCs also can react in the air with other chemicals. (These include oxygen and nitrogen oxides, largely from vehicle exhaust.) Those reactions can create ozone as well as fine particulates. High levels of fine particulate, tiny dustlike motes, can make it hard to breathe. They also can help foster chronic lung problems, diabetes and heart disease. (And while ozone high in the atmosphere helps shield earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, at ground level it mixes with fine particulates to brew up breath-choking smog. 

For six weeks, the researchers collected air samples in Pasadena, Calif. This was at a site in the well-known smoggy Los Angeles valley. They also studied indoor air measurements made by other scientists. The team traced the VOCs in these air samples to their original sources. To do this, they used databases showing the particular VOCs released by different household products.

Those household products had an outsized effect on air pollution, the team now reports. By weight, people use about 15 times more gasoline and diesel compared with VOC-emitting goods, such as soaps, shampoos, deodorants, air fresheners, glues and cleaning sprays. Yet those household products were responsible for 38 percent of the VOC emissions, the researchers found. That amount is 6 percentage points higher than the share due to gasoline and diesel use. The VOCs from household products also contributed as much as the fuels did to the production of ozone and fine particulates.

VOC-emitting consumer products

  • Shampoo
  • Hairspray
  • Deodorant
  • Perfume
  • Air fresheners
  • Cleaning sprays
  • Laundry detergent
  • Disinfectant wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Glue
  • Paint

Power Words

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American Association for the Advancement of Science     Formed in 1848, it was the first permanent organization formed to promote the development of science and engineering at the national level and to represent the interests of all its disciplines. It is now the world’s largest such society. Despite its name, membership in it is open to anyone who believes “that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can help solve many of the challenges the world faces today.” Its members live in 91 nations. Based in Washington, D.C., it publishes a host of peer-reviewed journals — most notably Science.

annual     Adjective for something that happens every year. 

atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

bleach     A dilute form of the liquid, sodium hypochlorite, that is used around the home to lighten and brighten fabrics, to remove stains or to kill germs. Or it can mean to lighten something permanently, such as: Being in constant sunlight bleached most of the rich coloring out of the window drapes.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chemical engineer     A researcher who uses chemistry to solve problems related to the production of food, fuel, medicines and many other products.

chronic     A condition, such as an illness (or its symptoms, including pain), that lasts for a long time.

compound     (often used as a synonym for chemical) A compound is a substance formed when two or more chemical elements unite (bond) in fixed proportions. For example, water is a compound made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O.

database     An organized collection of information.

diabetes     A disease where the body either makes too little of the hormone insulin (known as type 1 disease) or ignores the presence of too much insulin when it is present (known as type 2 diabetes).

diesel fuel     Heavier and oilier than gasoline, this is another type of fuel made from crude oil. It’s used to power many engines — not only in cars and trucks but also to power some industrial motors — that don’t rely on spark plugs to ignite the fuel.

engineer     A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

environmental science     The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.

evaporate     To turn from liquid into vapor.

exhaust     (in engineering) The gases and fine particles emitted — often at high speed and/or pressure — by combustion (burning) or by the heating of air. Exhaust gases are usually a form of waste.

fine particulates     See particulates.

fossil fuel     Any fuel — such as coal, petroleum (crude oil) or natural gas — that has developed within the Earth over millions of years from the decayed remains of bacteria, plants or animals.

nitrogen oxides     Pollutants made up of nitrogen and oxygen that form when fossil fuels are burned. The scientific symbol for these chemicals is NOx (pronounced “knocks”). The principle ones are nitric oxide (NO) and nitrous oxide (NO2).

organic     (in chemistry) An adjective that indicates something is carbon-containing; a term that relates to the chemicals that make up living organisms. 

oxide     A compound made by combining one or more elements with oxygen. Rust is an oxide; so is water.

oxygen     A gas that makes up about 21 percent of Earth's atmosphere. All animals and many microorganisms need oxygen to fuel their growth (and metabolism).

ozone     A colorless gas that forms high in the atmosphere and at ground level. When it forms at Earth’s surface, ozone is a pollutant that irritates eyes and lungs. It is also a major ingredient of smog.

particulate     A tiny bit of something. A term used by pollution scientists to refer to extremely tiny solid particles and liquid droplets in air that can be inhaled into the lungs. So-called coarse particulates are those with a diameter that is 10 micrometers or smaller. Fine particulates have a diameter no bigger than 2.5 micrometers (or 2,500 nanometers). Ultra-fine particulates tend to have a diameter of 0.1 micrometer (100 nanometers) or less. The smaller the particulate, the more easily it can be inhaled deeply into the lungs. Ultra-fine particulates may be small enough to pass through cell walls and into the blood, where they can then move throughout the body.

petroleum     A thick flammable liquid mixture of hydrocarbons. Petroleum is a fossil fuel mainly found beneath the Earth’s surface. It is the source of the chemicals used to make gasoline, lubricating oils, plastics and many other products.

pollutant     A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.

smog     A kind of pollution that develops when chemicals react in the air. The word comes from a blend of “smoke” and “fog,” and was coined to describe pollution from burning fossil fuels on cold, damp days. Another kind of smog, which usually looks brown, develops when pollutants from cars react with sunlight in the atmosphere on hot days.

ultraviolet     A portion of the light spectrum that is close to violet but invisible to the human eye.

urban     Of or related to cities, especially densely populated ones or regions where lots of traffic and industrial activity occurs. The development or buildup of urban areas is a phenomenon known as urbanization.

volatile organic compounds (VOCs)     Certain solid and liquid chemicals that evaporate (become gases), often at room temperature or lower. Many of these chemicals can be harmful if inhaled or allowed to move through the skin. Concentrations of these chemicals tend to be higher indoors than out. Sources of VOCs include numerous household products, such as paints, varnishes, waxes, oil-dissolving solvents, cleansers, disinfecting, cosmetics, degreasers and glues. Many fuels also release VOCs.


Meeting:​ ​​ B. McDonald et al. Volatile chemical products emerging as largest petrochemical source of urban organic emissionsScience. Vol. 359, February 16, 2018, p. 760. doi:10.1126/science.aaq0524.