AUSTIN, Texas — To reduce your impact on air quality, you might expect to trade in your gas-guzzling clunker of a car — but you can also unplug those air fresheners.
In urban areas, emissions from consumer goods such as paint, cleaning supplies and personal care products now contribute as much to ozone and fine particulate matter in the atmosphere as do emissions from burning gasoline or diesel fuel.
The finding is largely a sign of success, study coauthor Brian McDonald said February 15 during a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Steps taken to clean up car exhaust over the past few decades have had a huge effect, and as a result, “the sources of air pollution are now becoming more diverse in cities,” said McDonald, a chemist at Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, Colo.
Everyday products like these emit a bouquet of volatile organic compounds that contribute to air pollution. A spritz of perfume or a spray of disinfectant has a small effect, but frequent use of these products by millions of people adds up to a big impact.
“When you have a big mountain in front of you, it’s difficult to know what lies behind it,” says Spyros Pandis, a chemical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who wasn’t part of the study. Now, other sources of air pollution are becoming more visible.
The new study, also published in the Feb. 16 Science, focused on volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that are derived from petroleum. These are a diverse array of hundreds of chemicals that easily vaporize and make their way into the atmosphere. Some VOCs can be harmful when directly inhaled — molecules released by bleach and paint make people lightheaded, for example.
Beyond their immediate effects, VOCs react with other molecules in the air, such as oxygen and nitrogen oxides, to generate ozone as well as fine particulate matter. (Those nitrogen oxides come, in large part, from vehicle exhaust.) High levels of fine particulate matter make it hard to breathe and contribute to chronic lung problems (SN: 9/30/17, p. 18). And while ozone high in the atmosphere helps shield Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, at ground level, it mixes with fine particulates to form breath-choking smog.
Over a period of six weeks, the researchers collected air samples in Pasadena, located in the notoriously smoggy Los Angeles valley. They also evaluated indoor air quality measurements made by other scientists. The team traced the molecules found in these air samples to their original sources using databases that show the specific volatile organic compounds released by specific products.
Consumer products that emit VOCs have an outsized effect on air pollution, the team found. About 15 times as much oil and natural gas is used as fuel than ends up in consumer products ranging from soaps, shampoos and deodorants to air fresheners, glues and cleaning sprays. And yet these everyday products were responsible for 38 percent of the VOC emissions, the researchers found, while gasoline and diesel emissions accounted for only 33 percent. Consumer products also contributed just as much as fuels to chemical reactions that lead to ozone and fine particulate matter. The emissions from consumer products also dwarfed those from the production of oil and gas, called upstream emissions.
Consumer goods like paints, inks and bath products make up only a tiny sliver of the sources releasing volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere. But they have an outsized impact, contributing about as much to VOC emissions as gasoline and diesel do.
Emission sources: Use versus contribution to smog
B.C. MCDONALD ET AL/SCIENCE 2018
Regulations on VOCs vary by state, but most consumer products are regulated only for their potential contribution to ground-level ozone, not fine particulate matter. This study makes it clear that even though most volatile emissions from consumer products happen indoors, that air eventually gets vented outside, where it can contribute to larger-scale atmospheric pollution in multiple ways, McDonald said.
More work needs to be done to see whether other cities show the same pattern, the researchers add, as well as to figure out which kinds of VOCs might be particularly problematic. Because there are so many VOCs and they all react differently in the atmosphere, there’s still a lot to learn about which might be most likely to form fine particles and therefore be the best targets for reduction.
Part of the challenge with many these volatile-emitting products is that they’re specifically designed to evaporate as part of their job, says study coauthor Jessica Gilman, an atmospheric chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder. For some products, like paints, there are low-VOC formulations available. But finding replacements for key ingredients in other products can be hard. Picking unscented versions of personal care products when possible and using the minimum amount necessary can help reduce the impact on air quality.
Indoor air quality (IAQ) remains a topic of discussion in many institutional and commercial facilities as the general public pays greater attention to the role buildings play in both environmental friendliness and the health and comfort of occupants and visitors. For some building occupants, though, IAQ is more than a topic of conversation. It is a critical health consideration. Consider the case of two schools in Laurel Bay, S.C.
Run by the U.S. Department of Defense, Laurel Bay is made up of more than 1,000 homes near the Marine Corps Air Station and Parris Island bases. Its two oldest schools — Galer Elementary School and Bolden Elementary/Middle School — serve children of military families living on the bases, according to an article in The Beaufort Gazette. The military disputes that the school buildings impacted staff members’ health, pointing to tests done in 2011 and 2012 that showed no dangerous levels of a known carcinogen, according to standards set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
But under different standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, three rooms in one of the schools had excessive levels of benzene. Experts say EPA standards are more protective of students’ and teachers’ health than OSHA’s. An exact number, or even an estimate, of Laurel Bay teachers who had serious medical conditions while working in the schools was unavailable. Neither union officials who represent the staff members nor a spokeswoman with the Department of Defense schools division would provide an estimate to the Packet and Gazette in 2010.
Read about the role of technology and training in preventing IAQ issues.
“The investigators indicated higher-than-average breast cancer diagnosis in the years prior to the study,” says Department of Defense Education Activity spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis. “No other major medical trends have been reported recently.”
In 2010, a number of teachers and other staff at both Galer and Bolden schools approached their union, alarmed by the number of employees being diagnosed with serious illnesses and infertility issues. About 80 staff members worked in the two schools around that time. The military said it did not know how many employees requested an investigation into the schools, though Kanellis told the Packet and Gazette that the number is “believed to be as many as nine.”
In the summer of 2010, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control ruled out contamination at the schools from drinking water or asbestos.
Worries about the schools reappeared last January. That is when the wife of a U.S. Marine previously stationed at Parris Island posted the YouTube video, describing the 2015 leukemia diagnosis of her daughter, Katie Whatley. Amanda Whatley’s family lived on Laurel Bay from 2007 until 2010, and she questioned the connection the base played in her daughter’s diagnosis.
Washington, DC – Exposure to radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. Radon is an odorless, tasteless and invisible gas produced by the decay of naturally occurring uranium in soil and water. Radon is a form of ionizing radiation and a proven carcinogen.
Cancer is scary and is often related to either smoking or Radon. During the month of January, EPA and health officials want you to make sure your home is free of radon, which is one of the leading causes of certain cancers. As a result of this the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated January as National Radon Action Month. EPA estimates that about 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the U.S. are radon-related.
The Environmental Protection Agency rates Radon as the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and number two cause of lung cancer next to smoking. Because of this there are 21,000 deaths a year due to radon exposure.
Radon in air is ubiquitous. Radon is found in outdoor air and in the indoor air of buildings of all kinds. EPA recommends homes be fixed if the radon level is 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) or more. Because there is no known safe level of exposure to radon, EPA also recommends that Americans consider fixing their home for radon levels between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L. The average radon concentration in the indoor air of America’s homes is about 1.3 pCi/L. It is upon this level that EPA based its estimate of 20,000 radon-related lung cancers a year upon. It is for this simple reason that EPA recommends that Americans consider fixing their homes when the radon level is between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L. The average concentration of radon in outdoor air is .4 pCi/L or 1/10th of EPA’s 4 pCi/L action level.
The radon health risk is underscored by the fact that in 1988 Congress added Title III on Indoor Radon Abatement to the Toxic Substances Control Act. It codified and funded EPA’s then fledgling radon program. Also that year, the Office of
the U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning about radon urging Americans to test their homes and to reduce the radon level when necessary (U.S. Surgeon General).
Unfortunately, many Americans presume that because the action level is 4 pCi/L, a radon level of less than 4 pCi/L is “safe”. This perception is altogether too common in the residential real estate market. In managing any risk, we should be concerned with the greatest risk. For most Americans, their greatest exposure to radon is in their homes; especially in rooms that are below grade (e.g., basements), rooms that are in contact with the ground and those rooms immediately above them.
A quick and inexpensive way to test for Radon in your home or office is with the DIY Radon Screen Check from Building Health Check, LLC at Grainger, Sears, IndoorAirTest.com and many other fine retailers. Building Health Check, LLC manufactures of the popular do-it-yourself (DIY) IAQ Screen product line at their headquarters in Clearwater, FL.
For more information on the IAQ Screen Test product line, please visit www.indoorairtest.com or contact JoAnn Phifer at 1-800-422-7873 ext 404.
About Pure Air Control Services
Pure Air Control Services, Inc. was established in 1984 as a small, mechanical, contracting firm and has since set the industry standard for indoor environmental quality diagnosis, environmental laboratory and remediation. Pure Air Control Services has serviced more than 600 million square feet of indoor environments in over 10,000 facilities.
Pure Air’s nationally performed services include: Building Sciences Evaluation; Building Health Check; a CDC ELITE Environmental Microbiology Laboratory; Environmental Project Management; HVAC New Life Restoration and PURE-Steam Coil Cleaning/Mold Remediation Services, among other indoor environmental services.
VENTURA (CBSLA) — With two large brush fires burning in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, air quality was visibly bad Tuesday, even with strong winds blowing much of the smoke out onto the ocean.
Our radar picking up smoke from the #ThomasFire – poor air quality… blaze has now burned 45,000 acres with zero containment #CBSLA
A large bank of smoke from the Thomas Fire was visible from SKY2 over Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai. The strong winds that are pushing flames west are similarly scattering plumes of gray smoke out over the region.
Further inland, the Creek Fire burning over Sylmar is giving an apocalyptic hue to the morning commute along the 5 Freeway.
Horrible air quality in the valley this morning due to the #creekfire as viewed from Mulholland Drive. Most of the valley can’t be seen from up here. @CBSLA
Further inland, the Creek Fire burning over Sylmar is giving an apocalyptic hue to the morning commute along the 5 Freeway.
A smoke advisory issued by the South Coast Air Quality Management District says that wind-blown smoke is making the air most hazardous in the San Fernando Valley and Malibu areas. The agency says everyone in these areas should avoid vigorous outdoor or indoor exercise, and people with respiratory or heart disease, pregnant women, seniors, and children were urged to remain indoors.
More than 50 miles away, officials from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District said that even though classes are in session, students are being kept indoors due to smoky conditions.
“School is in session; however, we will be running on an indoor schedule today, including for physical education, lunch and recess,” a statement from Superintendent Ben Drati posted on the district’s website said.
The Thomas Fire also forced the Getty Center to close to the public “to protect collections from smoke from fires in the region,” according to Getty officials. The Villa in Pacific Palisades is also closed, per its usual Tuesday schedule.
Southern California is enduring its second day of destructive Santa Ana winds that are being blamed for whipping up flames from both brush fires and sending embers beyond fire lines to start new fires.
Red Flag warnings, signifying the risk of wildfires, remain in effect across most of Los Angeles County and down south into Orange County. Tuesday’s warnings are scheduled to expire at 6 p.m., but forecasters say Santa Ana winds could persist into Friday or Saturday.
The gusty winds also have the potential to bring down trees and power lines, and already brought down several big rig trucks along the 210 Freeway in Fontana.
Some modern workplaces have gotten so efficiently air-tight and crowded that they could be making us less productive.That’s partly our colleagues’ fault: Adults breathe out a continuous (yet tiny) stream of CO2, which adds up to around 2 pounds every day.
On the ground outside, carbon dioxide concentrations typically hover between 250 and 500 parts per million, depending on how much pollution is around. Indoors, CO2 concentrations can be a bit higher, though it varies from place to place.
But extra CO2 can have a measurable effect on how well people accomplish cognitively high-level tasks at work.
A recent study by researchers from Harvard, SUNY and Syracuse suggests that when people breathe in too much carbon dioxide at their desks, their performance suffers. That jives with what brain researchers know about carbon dioxide: more CO2 causes brain metabolism to plummet and neural activity to take a dive.
That study got the science team at Business Insider wondering how much CO2 is in the air we’re breathing at work. So we conducted a test in our office to determine whether we, too, are being impacted by elevated carbon dioxide levels.
Fortunately, those results also turned out to be out well below worrisome CO2 levels.
But we weren’t satisfied with a single result. So we headed into the middle of the crowded newsroom for a second test.
Our test involved sucking air into a syringe and then pushing it out into a CO2-measuring vile built for greenhouses. As it turned out, our conference room air was performance-friendly.
First we tested the CO2 concentrations in a conference room.
Ultimately, designers and architects adopted new building ventilation standards to make sure that there’s enough fresh air indoors.
Indoor carbon dioxide became a problem in the 1970s, when designers began making buildings more airtight. People started reporting feeling ill and less productive at work. The term ‘sick building syndrome’ was born.
In the study, 24 workers spent six days working at different CO2 concentrations. The participants were plucked from a range of professions, including engineers, marketers and programmers. The results from the small group suggested that even a slightly elevated CO2 level can have an impact on how well people work.