Air pollution is locked in over Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo: AP

For years, the war against smog and bad air quality has been waged through regulations on tail pipes, refineries, and other obvious sources of pollution. Those regulations have targeted a host of volatile organic compounds and other gases that directly or indirectly cause air pollution, one of the biggest risks to human health.

Compounds from burning gas and diesel have declined over time, but startling new research published on Thursday in Science suggests that there’s an unexpected growing source of air pollution right under our noses. Turns out, many of the things we rely on and enjoy as part of daily life are degrading air quality in ways scientists have vastly underestimated.

Cleaning products, hair spray, makeup, printing inks, glue, paint, and even booze all contain a wealth of petroleum-based chemicals. Those chemicals slowly release volatile organic compounds over time through a variety of processes from paint or nail polish drying to stirring up cleaning products. Once they’re released into the atmosphere, chain reactions can turn them into particulate matter that’s harmful to public health.

Emissions from these products are rising and now account for half of all fossil fuel-driven volatile organic compounds poisoning urban air. The findings are the first of their kind, and indicate a whole new area of research and potential avenues to clean up the air we breathe.

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“As the transportation sector gets cleaner, sources of air pollution are getting more diverse in cities,” Brian McDonald, a researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, said at a press conference. “In some ways, this is a good news story. As we control biggest sources from the past, other sources are emerging in importance.”

To come to this understanding, McDonald and a team of 19 other scientists conducted a unique analysis that blended data from chemical companies, indoor and outdoor air quality measurements, and a series of airborne research flights over Southern California in 2010 coupled with ship and satellite estimates to gather data about the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

They did all this knowing there was a big gap in the source of volatile organic compound inventories taken in major cities. Fossil fuel-related volatile organic compounds from cars and local oil and gas production only accounted for 61 percent of locally-sourced compounds.

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Using their newly-constructed database of consumer product chemicals, they looked for chemical markers indicating the source of volatile organic compounds. That allowed the scientists to close nearly the entire gap in “missing” compounds using Los Angeles as a test case.

“Everyday consumer choices can have a meaningful impact on urban air quality,” Christopher Cappa, an air quality researcher at the University of California, Davis, said in the press conference. “Our work suggests challenges remain moving forward to achieve further declines [in harmful compounds].”

Among the challenges researchers face going forward is understanding which chemicals are most efficient at forming particulate matter in the atmosphere.

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“A lot of these chemicals are, in a historical sense, fairly new so there’s not a lot of research on them,” McDonald said. “There needs to be more work to figure out potential environmental implications and more fully understanding what the health impacts are.”

The latter is particularly important from a societal perspective. The tiny particulate matter that can form from the compounds poses a massive health risk, particularly for the young, old, and people with respiratory issues. Communities of color also largely suffer. And even though those groups may be most directly impacted, we all shoulder the burden in health costs. Asthma, to take one example, has taken an $80 billion toll on the American economy.

“The choices we make everyday from energy sources to chemical products we use in daily lives are changing the chemical composition of atmosphere,” Jessica Gilman, a chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said. “That atmosphere contains all the air we will ever breathe.”