Air pollution is to vehicles as plastic waste is to beauty products, right? Wrong. While we’ve been conditioned to believe that air pollution and global climate change is due in large part to the emissions from vehicles, a study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), now published in the journal Science, tells us something different: The top contributor to urban air pollution is a very close tie between vehicle emissions and chemical products created from petroleum—most notably perfumes, cleaning agents and paints.
I know what you’re thinking. We use significantly less perfume than we do fuel—as NOAA notes, people use 15 times more fuel, by weight, than they do these products—so how does this sector of products contribute as much to air pollution as the entire transportation sector? It’s complicated.
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A main reason is that these petroleum-created chemical products produce microscopic particles capable of damaging human lungs twice as fast than the transportation sector can, and they’re designed to be breathed in. “Perfume and other scented products are designed so that you or your neighbor can enjoy the aroma,” Jessica B. Gilman, coauthor of the study, explained. “You don’t do this with gasoline.”
While gasoline is stored in vessels and rarely come in contact with air, chemical products are designed to be applied to our skin and around our homes. The result is a a purposeful evaporation instead of burning it to release energy. Two different types of emission, but the same harmful result.
Though the transportation realm has seen some improvement in the last few years, it’s not enough. “As the transportation sector gets cleaner, these other sources of VOCs [volatile organic compounds] become more and more important,” said Brian C. McDonald, coauthor of the study. “A lot of stuff we use in our everyday lives can impact air pollution.”
As for what we can do to curb this type of pollution (aside from quitting painting our homes and wearing perfume), stay tuned. “We hope this study spurs collaboration between atmospheric scientists, chemical engineers and public health researchers, to deliver the best science to decision-makers,” said McDonald. “The strategies that worked in the past might not necessarily work as well in the future.”
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