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Shampoo. Air freshener. Countertop cleaner. Nearly everything in your medicine cabinet or under your kitchen sink is a source of air pollution.
Regulators and scientists have known this for years, but recent studies led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration find that gases emitted from these fragrant products could be a greater source of air pollution than previously thought.
One study found that these volatile organic compounds (VOCs), often derived from petrochemicals, now rival cars as a source of air pollution in urban areas. When VOCs mix with nitrogen oxide and sunlight, they create ozone and particulate matter, which can trigger health and respiratory problems, especially for children and the elderly.
“The issue of VOCs is a topic that the entire cosmetics industry is focused on right now,” Kate Babb Shone, vice president of public relations for Paris-based Chanel, told Bloomberg Environment.
“All of our products strictly comply with the international regulations regarding VOCs,” she said. “In addition, most of the sprays we use for our products are natural sprays and we do not use any propellant classified as VOC.”
But not all companies can make the same claim.
“We now see that emissions from personal care products are one of the largest sources of emissions—things like shampoos, deodorants, lotions,” Brian McDonald, lead author of the NOAA study, told Bloomberg Environment. “Followed by coatings like paint, adhesives, printer inks and cleaning products. We’re really just now starting to understand what’s actually in our air, and the variety of sources that contribute to urban air quality.”
Fuel-related exhaust from cars has long been considered the main source of these kinds of air pollutants. But thanks to advances in catalytic converters and improvements in fuel economy, the proportions of human-created VOCs in some urban areas may have changed significantly, McDonald said.
The study, published in the journal Science, found that household products in Los Angeles produced the same amount VOCs as cars in the famously polluted city. That means government regulators are likely underestimating emissions from these products by 60 to 70 percent, while overestimating car emissions by 40 percent, the study found.
VOCs are in a different category of air pollution from greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which is also produced by cars and is a major contributor to climate change.
“In the past, these chemicals were difficult to measure. They’re made to evaporate quickly, and often contain oxygen, which made it difficult for the instrumentation to pick up,” McDonald said. “But the technology has gotten much better over the last 10 years, and we now have a much better idea of what is in the atmosphere.”
Even so, McDonald admits scientists have a lot research and modeling to do before they understand the full environmental effects of different categories of VOCs.
But in cases where the connection is clear, companies have responded quickly to consumer concerns—as was the case with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in hairspray, or by swapping out petrochemicals for latex in paint, McDonald said.
Trade associations speaking on behalf of consumer product manufacturers points out that many companies have already reformulated their products to be more environmentally friendly.
“One thing not fully addressed in these recent studies is that VOCs in consumer products have been regulated and reduced alongside automobile sources, if not more so,” said Steve Bennett, vice president of scientific affairs for the Household and Commercial Products Association.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed the country’s first VOCs emissions standard for aerosol-based antiperspirants and deodorants in 1989.
Since then, the EPA also passed national limits on VOC’s in 1998 as part of its mandate under the Clean Air Act. The limits apply to products including air freshener, glass cleaners, insecticides, and many others. States are also free to set their own VOC regulations, as long as they don’t fall below the limits set by the EPA.
“In fact, the CARB regulations are much more rigorous the VOC limits laid out in the current EPA national regulation,” Bennett said.
Bennett maintains that the CARB rules essentially function as a national standard for most companies, and the rules are continually strengthened and expanded to cover other products as well.
The agency recently completed a survey of more than 400 categories of consumer products sold in California between 2013 and 2015. CARB plans to release the 2013 and 2014 results in the next few weeks. The 2015 survey results are expected this fall.
In recent years programs have emerged to help companies choose ingredients with a greener chemical and emissions footprint—programs such as the EPA’s Safer Choice and GreenBlue’s CleanGredients labeling programs.
Both programs test and pre-certify chemicals for low toxicity, health-hazard and pollution risk. But getting chemicals on the list also comes at significant cost.
“Everybody’s looking for ways to say that your product is made from natural ingredients,” said David Leonard, director of research and development for Lemi Shine, a cleaning products manufacturer based in Austin, Texas.
Leonard told Bloomberg Environment that many of the natural oils and extracts that go into fragrances are more expensive than synthetic ingredients. And even the synthetic chemicals approved by CleanGredients or Safer Choice aren’t equally available in the marketplace.
“If a chemical gets listed on CleanGredients, Dow or BASF, they’re going to pass those certification costs on to us,” he said. “But someone like Procter & Gamble is going to pay less per pound, because they’re buying chemicals by the barge, when all I can afford is one drum.”
The Safer Choice program has been targeted for cuts by the Trump administration, but industry groups have vowed to fight to keep it.
Another recent study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found that emissions of D5 Siloxane, short for decamethylcyclopentasiloxane, actually spike during rush hour commuting times.
D5 Siloxane is a VOC often added to personal care products like shampoos and lotions to give them a smooth, silky feeling.
“By using D5 as a marker, we were able to detect emissions patterns in Boulder, Colo., that coincide with human activity,” said Matthew Coggon, a University of Colorado scientist working with the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory.
“People apply these products in the morning and then leave for work. So emissions spike during commuting hours,” he told Bloomberg Environment.
The European Union has deemed D5 as hazardous under its REACH chemical regulation. After a multi-year review, Canada concluded that “D5 is not entering the environment in a quantity or under conditions that constitute a danger to the environment.”
D5 is not regulated in the U.S. D4 Siloxane, however, also used extensively in cosmetics and silicone polymers, is subject to an Enforceable Consent Agreement in which manufacturers are subject to testing to determine whether the chemical is showing up in the environment.
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