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Air Quality

Published on February 27th, 2018 | by James Ayre

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Consumer Products Now Primary Source Of VOCs In Cities, Not Vehicles, Study Finds

February 27th, 2018 by  


Common consumer products such as paint, pesticides, cosmetic products, and cleaning products, are now the primary source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emissions in cities — taking the lead from vehicle exhaust — according to a new study published in the journal Science.

The new study, which was led by NOAA, found that — owing to this being the case — a shift in the focus of air pollution mitigation efforts in cities will need to take place if many further improvements are to be made.

To explain, VOCs are precursors for secondary organic aerosols (SOA) formation — a large part of PM2.5 (small particulate matter) air pollution in many large cities. Such aerosols are also a part of ozone formation in cities, it should be noted.

Contributors to ambient air pollution in Los Angeles. (A to D) Distribution of (A) petrochemical product use, (B) VOC emissions, (C) VOC reactivity with OH, and (D) SOA formation potential across petrochemical sources only. Contributions from nonfossil sources are not shown. Uncertainties in source apportionment were determined by Monte Carlo analysis. McDonald et al.

The new findings don’t change the fact that automotive emissions in cities are still a major factor in air pollution levels, but they do make it clear that the situation is far more complex than it is sometimes made out to be. The reality is that the modern consumer-based way of structuring society results in the release of vast amounts of dangerous chemicals and pollutants into the immediate environment — with many common cleaning, pest and weed control, and cosmetic products in wide use in cities being quite inimical to human health, despite their widespread use.

Here’s a bit more from the study: “Here, we focus on volatile chemical products (VCPs), including pesticides, coatings, printing inks, adhesives, cleaning agents, and personal care products. These products contain organic solvents, which lead to substantial emissions of VOCs to the atmosphere…People use a lot more fuel than they do petroleum-based compounds in chemical products — about 15 times more by weight, according to the new assessment. Even so, lotions, paints, and other products contribute about as much to air pollution as does the transportation sector. In the case of PM2.5, particle-forming emissions from chemical products are about twice as high as those from the transportation sector, the team found.”

Total VOC emission factors for end uses of petrochemical sources considered in this study, including from mobile sources and volatile chemical products. Shown in the bottom row are sales data of fuels for mobile sources (from Fig. 1A) and sales data of volatile chemical products (from Fig. 1D). The green symbol and dashed arrow illustrate the large reductions in tailpipe VOC emission factors as precatalyst on-road gasoline vehicles were replaced by present-day vehicle fleets. Error bars reflect the 95% confidence interval of the mean or expert judgment (17).

Particularly interesting here is that according to the new research, the quantity of VOCs released by consumer and industrial products in the US is some 2-3 times higher than previously estimated. That probably isn’t all that surprising to anyone that has lived in a large city, all things considered, but it’s still “news” from the perspective of quantitative measurements via research.

An atmospheric researcher at NOAA by the name of Jessica Gilman helpfully explained the research this way: “The disproportionate air quality impact of chemical product emissions is partly because of a fundamental difference between those products and fuels…Gasoline is stored in closed, hopefully airtight, containers and the VOCs in gasoline are burned for energy. But volatile chemical products used in common solvents and personal care products are literally designed to evaporate. You wear perfume or use scented products so that you or your neighbor can enjoy the aroma. You don’t do this with gasoline.”

Mass balance of organic compounds through the U.S. petrochemical industry in 2012, from crude oil and natural gas production to resulting VOC emissions. (A to E) Within the chemical manufacturing sector, orange sections of boxes track hydrocarbon feedstocks (A), the fraction used for production of organic solvents [(B) and (C)], organic solvents consumed domestically for chemical products (D), and resulting emissions from use of volatile chemical products (E). Emissions from plastic, rubber, and other chemical products are not considered here. All units are in Tg; boxes are sized proportionally among (B), (C), and (D) (17).

The new work also helps explain why there has long been a substantial gap between actual air pollution levels in major cities (as measured by sensors), and the levels predicted by common model simulations. Actual air pollution levels have long trended far higher than expected on models alone (as has been the case with anthropogenic climate warming and weirding as well).

Something else to note here is that the VOCs associated with cleaning, cosmetic, and weed/pest control products were measured as being very high outdoors — with the implication then being that indoor VOC exposure for many of those living in cities must now be extremely high. This of course tracks with the rapid rise of various health problems and diseases in the “developed world” over just the last few decades.

While this news may not seem all that immediately relevant at CleanTechnica, it seems worth covering here as the air pollution released as the result of cars and trucks is often assumed to be the primary cause of urban air pollution, when in reality the causes are actually quite varied. If urban air pollution problems are going to ever truly be brought under control then an approach that encompasses more than just banning internal combustion engine (ICE) cars will be necessary.

What does that entail in practice? Probably the same sorts of things that would be necceaey if extreme anthropogenic climate change was to be avoided — a fundamental restructuring of modern society, culture, and industry across practically every possible parameter. On that note, I recommend this article here: 2 Minutes To Midnight — Doomsday Clock Moves Forward Again Thanks To Climate Change, Institutional Collapse, & Nuclear Politics.


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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.



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