Everyday household items are contributing to air pollution at an increasing rate.

Everyday household items are contributing to air pollution at an increasing rate.

Mostly when we think about pollution, we think about fuel emissions, right?

Well, thanks to a new study published Friday in the prestigious journal Science, that’s likely going to change. The study is an evaluation of urban air pollution, focusing specifically on the origins of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These aren’t just coming from what your car spits out, but are also produced by volatile chemical products (VCPs), which many of us use on a daily basis. VCPs are in a wide variety of products, like pesticides, printer inks, household cleaners, and personal care products. The study’s authors find that, with the transportation industry’s recent focus on efficiency and sustainability, air pollution from sources like cars and trucks is declining, but: VCPs are now responsible for half of VOC emissions in cities.

So right now, the US regulates products based on air toxicity and ozone production, but we “currently exempt many chemicals that lead to secondary organic aerosols.” In other words, when we use products like paint, deodorant, and printer ink, chemicals within them are released into the air, and then into the atmosphere. These secondary organic aerosols (SOAs) aren’t declining, in large part because we don’t regulate them. Which means they’re increasingly taking over a larger share of the crummy, toxic, polluted air we breathe every single day.

The study acknowledges fossil fuels as the main source of urban air pollution, but points to particulate pollution (also known as particulate matter, or PM – scientists do love their acronyms) as an increasingly important factor in human health. Particulate matter that’s smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter is inhalable, and can get deep into your lungs and even your bloodstream. Part of the problem here is that much of this pollution is concentrated indoors since that’s where you use these products, which makes it hard to quantify and regulate.

Historically, these products have been regulated based on how much ozone they contribute to the atmosphere, but the results of this study make the case that ozone is less prudent than particulate matter, given that “global mortality from fine particles is significantly greater than for ambient O3 pollution.” (Remember that report from this past fall that attributed 16% of all deaths worldwide to chemical pollution?)

The moral of this story? Stick to and advocate for non-toxic chemicals whenever possible, because slightly more expensive cleaning and hygiene supplies are still a lot cheaper than cancer.

There’s no telling if regulations will change, given the current administration’s take on regulating businesses. Michael Honeycutt, the chair of the Science Advisory Board at the EPA, has consistently resisted regulation on ozone and toxic pollution throughout his career, reframing the science in a way that minimizes apparent risk. Some experts acknowledge him as a sound analytic voice in the field, while others denounce his positions as “totally inconsistent with mainstream thinking.”

An un-American budget

The White House’s latest budget proposal, released on February 12, is unlikely to ever be enacted, but it sure reveals the values of our current administration. The proposal includes a $2.5 billion cut to the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual budget, a reduction of nearly 25 percent.

The goal is to shift responsibility of environmental protection from the federal government to the states, reduce superfluous programs, and “give the regulated community an even playing field for conducting business.” The good news is, the budget cuts wouldn’t affect funding for cleanup for hazardous Superfund sites. It also allocates more funding for investment in wastewater and storm water infrastructure.

Folks in the environmental world are critical of the plan, asserting the budget cuts would be a huge setback to current federal-state partnerships that protect water quality in several large bodies of water, including the Gulf of Mexico (which is primed for detrimental ecological repercussions) and the Puget Sound. It would essentially eliminate climate-change related programs and slash funding for prosecution against environmental infractions. The US Geological Survey (USGS), a branch responsible for environmental health impact research, would lose $240 million – more than 20 percent of its annual budget. That money would be redirected to research into finding and developing “mineral and energy resources,” i.e., fossil fuels.  

Montani Semper Liberi

Lissa Lucas, the woman running against Republican incumbent Jason Harshbager for West Virginia’s state legislature, was removed from a public hearing for speaking against a proposed bill that would allow natural gas companies to drill on private land with the permission of just three-quarters of the property owners.

In her testimony, Lucas listed the financial donations state legislators supporting the bill had received from oil and gas companies. She continued to do so even after being asked to stop, and was eventually escorted out. Her parting words, “Montani Semper Liberi,” are from the West Virginia state seal and translate to, “Mountaineers are Always Free.” Watch the video for yourself here.

Bonus round:

This great article from Yessenia Funes at Grist explores the lack of diversity in environmental sciences and the implications on minority health. She ties in the way personal experiences contribute to understanding of environmental issues, and thus, policy, especially when it comes to race, because it often takes a different perspective to understand and untangle structural problems.

As I mentioned last week, a recent study examined 90,000 US schools and showed that exposure to pollution is occurring along distinctly racial lines. Low-income communities, people of color, and generally vulnerable populations, are most at-risk for exposure to pollution. Just to double-down on the inequality, a very minimal amount of research is performed on minority populations, meaning that our standards for understanding disease and genetic predisposition are hyper-white. 


Fossil fuels are booming (quite literally) and could take a serious toll on marine life.


Geek the heck out over this photograph of a SINGLE ATOM. ONE. SINGLE. ATOM.

header image: "inked," frankieleon / flickr

Murdered activists, government collusion, and environmental injustice.

Murdered activists, government collusion, and environmental injustice.

Climate change is stressing us out, literally.

Climate change is stressing us out, literally.