Could nice smells be hurting the planet? NOAA study finds fragrance rivals car exhaust

Fossil fuel-based chemicals in a wide range of consumer products emerged as a rival to tailpipes

How many of us wake up in the morning and use some type of product that has a fragrance? Stop for a moment and think about how many times just today, you have used something that gave off a scent.

This could be lighting a scented candle, spraying air freshener throughout your home, washing your hair with shampoo and conditioner. How about the handy bug spray, and sunscreen when spending time outdoors?

What would you say if I told you that something as simple as putting your deodorant on every day could be affecting the pollution in your city?

According to new research from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, products that Americans are using are responsible for a significant amount of ozone pollution known as smog.

For this research, NOAA took a mobile laboratory out on field missions across the country measuring the presence of “volatile organic compounds” or VOC’s.

This map of the US shows the route driven by the NOAA CSL mobile lab from Boulder to New York City with a 3-D representation of population density. The pie charts show the fractions of the human-caused VOC emissions that can be attributed to VCPs and vehicle traffic for Boulder, Colorado and New York City. Credit: Chelsea Thompson, NOAA Chemical Sciences Laboratory

VOCs are a primary ingredient in the formation of ground-level ozone, which can trigger a variety of health problems in children, the elderly and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma.

“The big takeaway is how much VOC emissions from consumer products increase as urban population density increases, and how much these chemicals actually matter for producing ozone,” said researcher Matthew Coggon, a scientist working at NOAA who was lead author of the new study.

According to NOAA, over the past few decades, air quality regulators have been able to reduce urban smog by setting certain standards in transportation and electric power sectors. But in a paper published by NOAA scientists in 2018, the research found that “fossil fuel-based chemicals in a wide range of consumer products emerged as a rival to tailpipes as a source of VOCs”

In New York City, they sampled the air during a mission in 2018. They found that in the Big Apple, fragrant personal care products generated about half of the VOC’s that were generated by people, not by vehicle exhaust.

A few years later in 2021, a study published in Environmental Science and Technology found “volatile chemical products including paints, cleaners, and personal care products were responsible for 78 percent of the Manhattan VOC budget, versus just 22 percent for transportation.”

Their research took them across the country, measuring air pollution in cities from East to West coast.

Measurements taken in much less densely developed Boulder, Colorado, showed these volatile consumer products were still responsible for 42% of human-caused VOCs in the local atmosphere, with the transportation sector responsible for the rest.

The lead author of the study Georgios Gkatzelis estimates that on average, 50-80% of pollution forming urban VOCs are associated with chemical products nationwide.

NOAA’s mobile laboratory is now keeping tabs on the Southwest U.S. Since July, they have been on the road investigating the urban air pollution in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Schematic illustration of air pollutants present in urban areas that contribute to ozone and aerosol formation (i.e. smog). VOCs arise from both natural (biogenic) and man-made sources, whereas NOx is emitted by human activities. Credit: Chelsea Thompson, NOAA Chemical Sciences Laboratory

So how can we change this trajectory in ozone pollution? Coggon said that “the current generation of air quality models do not accurately simulate both the emissions and atmospheric chemistry of these consumer products and must be updated in order to capture their full impact on urban air quality. In areas where ozone pollution is a problem, new strategies to control VOC sources may need to be devised. We know now that these products are making ozone pollution worse. We can’t control what the trees are emitting, but what we can do is look for ways to make these common everyday products less polluting.”

About the Author:

Candace joined the News 6 team as the weekend morning meteorologist and reporter. She comes to Central Florida from Miami.