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Personal Care Products Could Be a Major Contributor to Air Pollution

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next

Putting deodorant or perfume on in the morning might make you feel good—and prevent others from withdrawing in horror from any odors you’re carrying around.

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But a new study suggests that petroleum-based chemicals used in some deodorants, perfumes, and other products can collectively emit as much air pollution in the form of volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s) as motor vehicles do. V.O.C.s interact with other particles to create smog and other types of pollution.

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Personal care products could be doing more harm to the atmosphere than you might think.

Here are Kendra Pierre-Louis and Hiroko Tabuchi reporting for The New York Times :

Smog is generally associated with cars, but since the 1970s regulators have pushed automakers to invest in technologies that have substantially reduced V.O.C. emissions from automobiles. So the rising share of air pollution caused by things like pesticides and hair products is partly an effect of cars getting cleaner. But that breathing room has helped scientists see the invisible pollutants that arise from a spray of deodorant or a dollop of body lotion.

The researchers said their study was inspired by earlier measurements of V.O.C.s in Los Angeles that showed concentrations of petroleum-based compounds at levels higher than could be predicted from fossil-fuel sources alone. Concentrations of ethanol, for example, were some five times higher than expected. And those levels were increasing over time.

The new research shows that chemicals from commercial products like deodorants and perfumes could be growing in relative importance compared to tailpipe emissions when it comes to pollution culprits. Fuel is more commonly used, but it’s also stored in an airtight tank and mostly converted to carbon dioxide—which, despite being a contributing factor in anthropogenic climate change, doesn’t turn into smog.

Consumer products like paints and lotions, though, do add to the smog problem. According to the study, about 40% of the chemicals found in these products end up in the air. In a simulated computer model of Los Angeles air quality, the scientists also found that about half of the V.O.C.s could be attributed to consumer products.

The study implies that there’s an easy way to help clean the air and decrease smog: avoid using these products—or if you use them, do so in moderation.

Photo credit: Public Domain

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