Wake up and smell the smog…
To this day, when most people think of pollution they think of belching factories, thick plumes of sulphurous smoke, poisonous flows into streams and lakes and, of course, vehicular emissions. These types of pollution are all too widespread, affect the least affluent among us the most and should, indeed, be of ongoing concern and action. But the pollution that has finally been validated, spectacularly, as the cause of nearly half of the smog in Los Angeles and 33 other cities – well, it never occurs to most people that this pollution could come from many of the products they use for cleaning and grooming and even disinfecting in their homes. (Photo Credit: autoblog)
Yet this is precisely what’s happening, at momentous levels, as documented by a new study, published last February 15, in the highly prestigious journal Science. The study, “Volatile chemical products emerging as largest petrochemical source of urban organic emissions,” is authored by Brian C. McDonald of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder and the Chemical Sciences Division, NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, and a group of collaborators. Good summaries can be found in the New York Times and Science Daily.
The types of products that contain VOCs (“volatile organic compounds”) and that produce outdoor smog turn out to come from many products used indoors, or around the home, and which are made – unknowingly to most people – with petrochemical components. They include the following categories:
- Air fresheners
- Cleaning sprays
- Laundry detergents
- Disinfectant wipes
- Hand sanitizers
- Flame retardants
To be clear: the authors found that even though petro-chemically-derived VOCs from consumer and industrial products form only a fraction of the mass of emissions – a mere 4%, as illustrated in the pie chart below – consumer products alone produce 38% and industrial products (pesticides, glues, paints) produce 15%, for a grand total of 53% of smog-forming emissions. Again: Chemical products contribute as much or more organic air pollution as transportation emissions in many cities, and are much more toxic in their power to create smog than those of vehicular origin.
Have we got your attention yet? Smog kills.
Now, these findings are not a surprise to people with chemical sensitivities, who have been getting increasingly sick walking their neighbourhoods and fleeing cities in droves. Nor are these finding a surprise to scientists who have been raising the alarm about the toxic contents of so many of these common household products for such a long time. But to those who have not given any thought to this issue, or who considered it overblown or even denied this analysis of common chemicals, discovering how these toxic VOCs punch so far above their weight in creating illness-producing smog has been a great, unanticipated shock that sent a seismic wave across the U.S. – and, hopefully and eventually, the world.
Interestingly, though anti-toxics advocates have been sounding the alarm about the adverse effects of these common chemicals for years, this clamour was actually not the factor that spurred the smog study. Rather, atmospheric scientists and officials were driven to solve a real mystery: why was smog continuing to form at dangerous levels in Los Angeles – their original target city – despite significant reductions in vehicular emissions due to stricter controls over several decades?
“You can see these really rapid decreases in tailpipe emissions,” author Brian C. McDonald told the New York Times. “It just made sense to start looking at other sources and seeing whether they could be growing in relative importance.”
So McDonald and company went ahead and did just that. They analyzed the air and the components of the smog, and BINGO! They found that the VOCs anti-toxics advocates have been identifying as so hazardous, straight up, are also exceptionally toxic as smog agents. Smog is highly toxic to humans and can cause severe sickness, shortened life or death. It causes hundreds of thousands of early deaths in the US annually and costs Canadians $36 billion a year.
Beyond Smog: Wake-up call on all toxic everyday chemicals
Graphic Credit: http://life.bio.sunysb.edu/marinebio/fc.6.toxicity.measures.html
Since smog has long been understood and officially accepted as a serious public health threat that must be reduced or eliminated, as the proper mandate for many existing government offices and departments, for laws and controls, the identification of consumer-product VOCs that contribute so greatly to smog should – we fervently hope – grab the attention of officials and institutions and focus it on common chemicals. And it should quickly point to the need for public policies that can reduce the contribution of those VOCs – and hence the chemicals that produce them.
This is why so many anti-toxics advocates hope that the conclusions of this study will become a tipping point in societal understanding and action toward labeling and regulation of these very harmful chemicals and the pollution they give off, indoors and out, and of the fact that using them is not just a “private choice” but also a “public hazard.”
“One of the things that we’re hoping the public takes away from this is that our energy sources and the consumer products we use every day are continually changing the composition of our atmosphere,” Jessica Gilman, a study co-author, told the New York Times. Notably and tragically, as the Times pointed out, “some of the VOCs used in consumer products were replacements for chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. Those chemicals were phased out beginning in the 1980s because they thinned the Earth’s ozone layer.”
The jury is in: between the harm these products are doing to us indoors and unadulterated, and outdoors, cooked by the sun and turned into smog, it is more than time for our politicians to wake up and implement tried and true solutions.
From the website of the Environmental Working Group (EWG)
Hundreds of Kids’ Cosmetics Products May Contain Hidden Carcinogen
By Scott Faber, Vice President of Government Affairs and Jared Hayes, Policy Analyst
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
More than 200 personal care products marketed to children and babies may contain 1,4-dioxane, a common contaminant that is a likely carcinogen.
More than 8,000 personal care products in EWG’s Skin Deep® cosmetics database include ingredients produced through ethoxylation, including polyethylene, polyethylene glycol (PEG) and ceteareth. Of those, more than 200 are marketed to children and infants, EWG found.
Although 1,4-dioxane is not intentionally added to personal care products, ethoxylated chemicals can contaminate personal care products with trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane. Some companies voluntarily remove or reduce 1,4-dioxane from these products through a process called vacuum stripping. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration has no rules that require companies to do so.
The Environmental Protection Agency has classified 1,4-dioxane as a likely human carcinogen and it is listed in California’s registry of chemicals known to cause cancer. In laboratory studies, animals who drank water with 1,4-dioxane developed tumors in the liver, nasal cavity, and the peritoneal and mammary glands. Short-term exposure to relatively high amounts of 1,4-dioxane is particularly damaging to the liver and kidneys.
Because manufacturers don’t have to disclose the presence of 1,4-dioxane on product labels, there’s no way for consumers to know if their personal care or other household products harbor the hidden carcinogen. Among the products marketed for use on children and babies that may contain 1,4-dioxane are popular sunscreens, toothpastes, bubble baths and shampoos.
Bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, would give the FDA the power to review dangerous chemicals like 1, 4-dioxane. The bill would also require personal care companies to alert the agency when their products injure consumers, and would give the FDA the power to recall dangerous products.
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT “EVERYDAY CHEMICALS”? Follow these links
Anne Steinemann, Ph.D.
Stephen Genuis, M.D.
Websites, researhers, and anti-toxics organizations and many more resources can on this site, be found in the “Where to Learn More” section of the “Greening Our Chemical Footprint” page.
Header Image Credit: Paul Dolan on iStock in Cars.com