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Next biggest danger to the environment? Household cleaners.
A new study of Los Angeles finds that as car emissions are being reduced household chemicals are taking their place as the main cause of air pollution.
In some places, we're beginning to see meaningful reductions in air pollution from vehicles. While this is good news, it also means it's time to begin to shift our focus to the next most environmentally damaging source of pollution: household products, including such seemingly benign substances as spray cleaners and perfumes. Are these seriously as bad as car emissions? If you're living in an urban area where car exhausts are getting under control they are.
A new report from scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado at Boulder just published in Science takes a careful look at air pollution in smog-ridden Los Angeles. It's a future-forward study since California is a state that takes clean air seriously—demanding that vehicles sold there meet more stringent emission standards than elsewhere—not least due to its driving-oriented culture. It offers us a peek at the future of other densely populated cities as they take control of their vehicle emissions. And in such places at such a time, household pollutants will likely be as big a source of air pollution there as they are in LA now.
VOCs and VCPs
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from vehicles have long been known to be the source of a significant amount of particulates in the air and a threat to Earth's ozone layer, and they're damaging to human lung health. This awareness has led to genuine progress in reducing the presence of VOCs emitted by vehicles.
Car emissions are dropping (Environmental Protection Agency)
While VOCs can actually remove greenhouse gas methane from the air, when they interact with sunlight and atmospheric gases they form tropospheric ozone—smog—and particulates.
The EPA doesn't track VOCs from household sources. VOCs produced by household product chemicals are not being seriously inventoried at all as of yet, and the new paper suggests that they're likely present in the overall U.S. atmosphere at up to the three times the assumed levels. This report constitutes a major wakeup call, concluding that “the use of volatile chemical products (VCPs)—including pesticides, coatings, printing inks, adhesives, cleaning agents, and personal care products—now constitutes half of fossil fuel VOC emissions in industrialized cities." (Our emphasis.) “That's really the punchline of this paper," says lead author Brian McDonald, talking to Popular Science.
VCPs are a subgroup of VOCs. While there are laws aimed at keeping VOCs to a minimum, many of those laws exempt VCPs.
Paper co-author Jessica Gilman tells The Independent, “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." (Our emphasis again.) These products' emissions are “short-lived but highly reactive gases that impact ozone and methane," says atmospheric scientists Atul Jain to Popular Science.
Consider, too, the health ramifications of the fact that these household chemicals are used in closed spaces, that is, homes. To keep utility bills down, we tend to keep our homes fairly airtight, which means these pollutants stay largely locked into our personal environments where they can affect our health and trigger allergic reactions of varying seriousness. The air, even in a smoggy place like LA, is likely to be far safer outside since harmful chemicals can at least dissipate there, though they are still clearly a problem.
Part of the difficulty in assessing the threat posed by VCPs is that the ingredients of many household products are proprietary—their “secret sauce," if you will. A look at their contents will list vague words such as “fragrance". As co-author Jessica Gilman points out, “If you look on the side of the container you have in your bathroom or kitchen, it uses that single word. But up to 2,000 compounds can fall under that category of fragrances." The researchers were therefore forced to consult publicly available information describing the sorts of ingredients such products typically contain and base their analysis on that.
Thanks to hardware modifications to cars—such as catalytic converters—vehicles' VOC emission factors have been steadily falling, and at this point, VOCs from household products are actually “one or two orders of magnitude higher than automobile exhaust," says the report. This is why they're packing such a punch.
The report offers as an example the fact that acetone levels in LA went up between 1990 and 2019 during a time when gas exhausts were declining. Acetone is in a variety of household products (see below).
What kinds of products are we talking about?
Chemicals cited in the report and products they're found in include:
Getting serious about household chemicals
This isn't the first time we've been through this, and we've shown that by taking the science seriously and drafting new regulations, we can switch to safer compounds and work to mitigate any we may be stuck with. Back in the 1980s, after it was discovered that chlorofluorocarbons in aerosol hairspray cans—and refrigerators and air conditioners—was contributing to the degradation of the ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol banned the use of CFCs, and manufacturers moved to others ways of getting products out of spray cans and cooling. It's impossible to know for sure, but it's estimated that the change may have avoided some 280 million additional cases of skin cancer. “It's all about control," Jain says encouragingly.
Meanwhile, on a voluntary basis, we can switch to water-based paint and use cleaning sprays more frugally. Having indoor plants can also help absorb some of the emissions.
None of which is to say it's time to slow down our efforts at getting vehicular emissions under control. California is unusually conscientious about environmental issues, and in many ways is ahead of other places. Car exhausts still do more to ruin the environment than household chemicals in most places, but the new report is nonetheless a clear, important signal that it's time to start paying closer attention to the damage being done by products we use every day in our homes.
Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?
Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.
Building a personal connection with students can counteract some negative side effects of remote learning.
- Not being able to engage with students in-person due to the pandemic has presented several new challenges for educators, both technical and social. Digital tools have changed the way we all think about learning, but George Couros argues that more needs to be done to make up for what has been lost during "emergency remote teaching."
- One interesting way he has seen to bridge that gap and strengthen teacher-student and student-student relationships is through an event called Identity Day. Giving students the opportunity to share something they are passionate about makes them feel more connected and gets them involved in their education.
- "My hope is that we take these skills and these abilities we're developing through this process and we actually become so much better for our kids when we get back to our face-to-face setting," Couros says. He adds that while no one can predict the future, we can all do our part to adapt to it.
Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.
- A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
- Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
- Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
A pile of recycled cardboard sits on the ground at Recology's Recycle Central on January 4, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images<p>A large part of the reason is speed. In a competitive market, pure players use the equation, <em>speed + convenience</em>, to drive adoption. This is especially relevant to the "last mile" GHG footprint: the distance between the distribution center and the consumer.</p><p>Interestingly, the smallest GHG footprint occurs when you order directly from a physical store—even smaller than going there yourself. Pure players, such as Amazon, are the greatest offenders. Variables like geographic location matter; the team looked at shopping in the UK, the US, China, and the Netherlands. </p><p>Sadegh Shahmohammadi, a PhD student at the Netherlands' Radboud University and corresponding author of the paper, <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/26/tech/greenhouse-gas-emissions-retail/index.html" target="_blank">says</a> the above "pattern holds true in countries where people mostly drive. It really depends on the country and consumer behavior there."</p><p>The researchers write that this year-and-a-half long study pushes back on previous research that claims online shopping to be better in terms of GHG footprints.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They have, however, compared the GHG emissions per shopping event and did not consider the link between the retail channels and the basket size, which leads to a different conclusion than that of the current study."</p><p>Online retail is where convenience trumps environment: people tend to order one item at a time when shopping on pure player sites, whereas they stock up on multiple items when visiting a store. Consumers will sometimes order a number of separate items over the course of a week rather than making one trip to purchase everything they need. </p><p>While greening efforts by online retailers are important, until a shift in consumer attitude changes, the current carbon footprint will be a hard obstacle to overcome. Amazon is trying to have it both ways—carbon-free and convenience addicted—and the math isn't adding up. If you need to order things, do it online, but try to consolidate your purchases as much as possible.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.