Aerosol products used in the home now emit more harmful volatile organic compound (VOC) pollutants than all cars in the UK, new research shows.
A new study from York University and the National Center for Atmospheric Science shows that the image is damaging worldwide with the world population now making enormous use of disposable aerosols – more than 25 billion cans a year.
This is estimated to lead to the release of more than 1.3 million tonnes of VOC air pollution each year, and could rise to 2.2 million tonnes by 2050.
The chemicals now used in compressed aerosols are mainly volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals that are also released from cars and fuels. The report says that the VOCs currently used in aerosols are less harmful than the ozone-depleting CFCs they replaced in the 1980s. In the 1980s, however, when major international policy decisions were made, no one saw such a large rise in global consumption.
In the presence of sunlight, VOCs combine with a second pollutant, nitrogen oxides, to cause photochemical smog that is harmful to human health and damage to crops and plants.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the largest source of VOC pollution in the UK was petrol cars and fuel, but these emissions have been dramatically reduced in recent years by controls such as catalytic converters on cars and fuel vapor recovery at petrol stations.
Researchers found that, on average, in high-income countries, 10 cans of aerosol can are used per person per year, with the largest contribution being products for personal care. The global amount emitted from aerosols each year boosts as the economy of lower and middle incomes grows and people in these countries buy more.
The rapporteurs call on international policy makers to reduce the use of VOCs in compressed aerosols, by encouraging less harmful propellants such as nitrogen, or advocating the use of non-aerosol versions of products. Currently, VOCs are used in about 93 percent of aerosol canisters.
Virtually all aerosol-based consumer products can be supplied in non-aerosol form, for example as dry as rolling deodorants, spray bars do not spray. Just making small changes in what we buy can have a major impact on indoor and outdoor air quality, and have a relatively small impact on our lives.
The widespread switching of aerosol propellant with non-VOC alternatives would lead to potentially significant reductions in surface ozone.
Given the contribution of VOCs to ground-level pollution, international policy revision is needed and the continued support of VOCs as a preferred substitute for halocarbons is potentially unsustainable for aerosol products in the long term. “
Professor Alastair Lewis from the Department of Chemistry and a director of the National Center for Atmospheric Science
The report says there are already non-aerosol alternatives that can be easily applied in their liquid or solid forms, such as roll-on deodorant, hair gel, solid furniture polish, effervescent lotion, and room scent.
Study authors conclude that the continued use of aerosols as non-aerosol alternatives is often down to the continuation of past consumer habits. And that the role of aerosol VOC emissions in air pollution needs to be articulated much more clearly in messages about air pollution and its management to the public.
Professor Lewis added: “Labeling consumer products as high VOC emissions – and this is clearly linked to poor indoor and outdoor air quality – can make a difference from aerosols to their alternatives, as seen earlier with the successful labeling of paints and varnishes.”
Amber Yeoman, a PhD candidate from Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratories, was a co-author of the study using data from industry and regulatory bodies from around the world.