Common products, like perfume, paint and printer ink, are polluting the atmosphere



File 20180215 131000 1ie7l5j.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
We need to measure the volatile compounds that waft off the products in our homes and offices.

Jenny Fisher, University of Wollongong and Kathryn Emmerson, CSIRO

Picture the causes of air pollution in a major city and you are likely to visualise pollutants spewing out of cars, trucks and buses.

For some types of air pollutants, however, transportation is only half as important as the chemicals in everyday consumer products like cleaning agents, printer ink, and fragrances, according to a study published today in Science.

Air pollution: a chemical soup

Air pollution is a serious health concern, responsible for millions of premature deaths each year, with even more anticipated due to climate change.




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Although we typically picture pollution as coming directly from cars or power plants, a large fraction of air pollution actually comes from chemical reactions that happen in the atmosphere. One necessary starting point for that chemistry is a group of hundreds of molecules collectively known as “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs).

VOCs in the atmosphere can come from many different sources, both man-made and natural. In urban areas, VOCs have historically been blamed largely on vehicle fuels (both gasoline and diesel) and natural gas.

Fuel emissions are dropping

Thanks in part to more stringent environmental regulations and in part to technological advances, VOCs released into the air by vehicles have dropped dramatically.

In this new study, the researchers used detailed energy and chemical production records to figure out what fraction of the VOCs from oil and natural gas are released by vehicle fuels versus other sources. They found that the decline in vehicle emissions means that – in a relative sense – nearly twice as much comes from chemical products as comes from vehicle fuel, at least in the US. Those chemicals include cleaning products, paints, fragrances and printer ink – all things found in modern homes.

The VOCs from these products get into the air because they evaporate easily. In fact, in many cases, this is exactly what they are designed to do. Without evaporating VOCs, we wouldn’t be able to smell the scents wafting by from perfumes, scented candles, or air fresheners.

Overall, this is a good news story: VOCs from fuel use have decreased, so the air is cleaner. Since the contribution from fuels has dropped, it is not surprising that chemical products, which have not been as tightly regulated, are now responsible for a larger share of the VOCs.

Predicting air quality

An important finding from this work is that these chemical products have largely been ignored when constructing the models that we use to predict air pollution – which impacts how we respond to and regulate pollutants.

The researchers found that ignoring the VOCs from chemical products had significant impacts on predictions of air quality. In outdoor environments, they found that these products could be responsible for as much as 60% of the particles that formed chemically in the air above Los Angeles.

The effects were even larger indoors – a major concern as we spend most of our time indoors. Without accounting for chemical products, a model of indoor air pollutants under-predicted measurements by a whopping 87%. Including the consumer products really helped to fix this problem.




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What does this mean for Australia?

In Australia we do a stocktake of our VOC emissions to the air every few years. Our vehicle-related VOC emissions have also been dropping and are now only about a quarter as large as they were in 1990.

Historical and projected trends in Australia’s road transport emissions of VOCs.
Author provided, adapted from Australia State of the Environment 2016: atmosphere

Nonetheless, the most recent check suggests most of our VOCs still come from cars and trucks, factories and fires. Still, consumer products can’t be ignored – especially as our urban population continues to grow. Because these sources are spread out across the city, their contributions can be difficult to estimate accurately.

We need to make sure our future VOC stocktakes include sources from consumer products such as cleaning fluids, indoor fragrances and home office items like printing ink. The stocktakes are used as the basis for our models, and comparing models to measurements helps us understand what affects our air quality and how best to improve it. It was a lack of model-to-measurement agreement that helped to uncover the VW vehicle emissions scandal, where the manufacturer was deliberately under-estimating how much nitrogen gas was being released through the exhaust.

If we can’t get our predictions to agree with the indoor measurements, we’ll need to work harder to identify all the emission sources correctly. This means going into typical Australian homes, making air quality measurements, and noting what activities are happening at the same time (like cooking, cleaning or decorating).




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What should we do now?

If we want to keep air pollution to a minimum, it will become increasingly important to take into account the VOCs from chemical products, both in our models of air pollution and in our regulatory actions.

In the meantime, as we spend so much of our time indoors, it makes sense to try to limit our personal exposure to these VOCs. There are several things we can do, such as choosing fragrance-free cleaning products and keeping our use of scented candles and air fresheners to a minimum. Research from NASA has also shown that growing house plants like weeping figs and spider plants can help to remove some of the VOCs from indoor air.

The ConversationAnd of course, we can always open a window (as long as we keep the outdoor air clean, too).

Jenny Fisher, Senior Lecturer in Atmospheric Chemistry, University of Wollongong and Kathryn Emmerson, , CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Do you want trees with that? How to stop consumer products destroying the rainforests


Nick Rowley, University of Sydney

If we are to succeed in tackling climate change, it is vital that we preserve the terrestrial carbon locked up in our forests and soils. Even putting the climate benefits aside, the value of our forests is immense. Rainforests cover just 6% of Earth’s surface but are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, with many species still to be discovered and named.

With the US National Cancer Institute having already commercialised products from rainforest plants, better treatments for many of humanity’s most intractable illnesses may lie hidden in forests that are currently being cut down or burned.

An estimated half a million square kilometres of forest – two and half times the size of Great Britain – were cut down between 2000 and 2010. But while numbers can be hard to visualise, flying above the forests of Sumatra or Kalimantan gives a clear view of the often industrial-scale exploitation that has occurred.

It is a problem of epic scale. No longer is it sweaty men with large saws, a couple of trucks and a bulldozer. When the forests of Southeast Asia are cleared it can be a military-sized operation: thousands of people with hundreds of machines clearing the land of all its biodiversity, stored carbon and unaccountable value. A job that would once have taken months is now over in hours.

The wood from these majestic, unique places goes on to make not only identifiable products like paper, tissue and kitchen towel, but also the cardboard packaging, stickers and paper that surrounds much else of what we buy. And with forests also cleared for agriculture, the palm oil alone produced on previously forested land is found in about half of the products on our supermarket shelves.

Tracking the sources of all these products is hard – so hard that it is tempting just to disengage. But, as with climate change, we can’t abstain from trying just because it’s difficult.

Taking action

And there are reasons for hope. Over the past five years organisations such as Greenpeace have done an outstanding job in revealing the scourge of landscape-scale deforestation. Their global, highly creative campaigns against companies like Nestle, Mattel and Disney have urged consumers to think hard about the deforestation behind the products on their shelves.

Greenpeace targeted Mattel after alleging that Barbie’s packaging comes from rainforest destruction.

In turn, this has prompted major agribusinesses and paper companies that supply those brands to commit to zero-deforestation practices.

Having had a role to play in some of the regional forest agreements in New South Wales in the 1990s, I know how challenging implementing these commitments would be, even in a developed country like Australia. It is harder still in the muddled, multilayered and complex bureaucracies of many Southeast Asian countries.

Ignitions and emissions

Two weeks ago I was Singapore. The air was choked with acrid smoke from the forest and peat fires in nearby Sumatra. Schools were closed, sporting events cancelled, and people told to stay indoors. The last major Indonesian forest fires in 1997 not only had a devastating effect on the landscape and human health; they also produced an estimated 40% of the all the world’s greenhouse emissions that year – the biggest annual jump in carbon dioxide on record.

The costs for Singaporeans are massive – not only to their health but also to the reputation of the island state. How these fires were set, and who is to blame, is unclear.

The sole benefit of this ongoing tragedy of the commons is that it serves to focus attention on the problem. And there is potential that the upcoming United Nations climate summit in Paris could deliver real progress on avoiding deforestation.

From peat fires to Paris

Several factors are coming together. First, the UN has worked hard on getting major businesses to acknowledge the need to halt deforestation. The New York Declaration on Forests pledges to halve the rate of global forest loss by 2020, and seeks to end it completely by 2030.

Of course, that is weaker than what is required. But at least it is a start, and through signing the declaration, major businesses like McDonalds, WalMart and Unilever have shown their concern and will now have to deliver.

Second, following Greenpeace’s high-profile campaigns, companies that operate in Asia such as Asia Pulp and Paper, Wilmar and others have now made far stronger commitments than the New York Declaration. We should hope fervently that they succeed, because if they can’t find a way to satisfy consumer demand using plantations, there is little hope for native forests.

Third, the Forest Stewardship Council, having played a key role in helping educate consumers, retailers and producers through its certification schemes, recognises that there is now a need to go beyond certification and to ensure responsible forest management is driven by clear principles and a process of constant improvement. Placing a logo on a product and hoping to insulate yourself against criticism is very different to the strategic choice that, as a business, you are committed to eradicating native forest material from your products.

Finally, climate finance targeted at developing countries is beginning to chip away at the economic incentives to exploit forested land. To date, the issue has been impenetrable to anyone lacking the patience to decipher the jargon-laden negotiations behind the UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program. But with the UN’s renewed focus, the desire of businesses to commit to zero deforestation, and the political need for the Paris talks to deliver tangible progress, a powerful market driver to protecting forests could yet become a reality.

No sensible person wants the things they buy to come with a side serving of environmental destruction. With progress on international policy, effective advocacy, public awareness and business commitments, we may just still be able to protect what’s left of the world’s great tropical rainforests.

The Conversation

Nick Rowley, Adjunct professor, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.