For most schools and employers, air pollution isn’t high on the list of concerns. After all, car exhaust and gas fumes aren’t fouling the air inside classrooms and cubicles. Even those idling yellow school buses have cleaned up their act; today’s buses are 60 times cleaner than those built a generation ago.
Yet students, staff, and employees actually do face an air quality threat — from pollutants wafting about indoors.
The culprit: harmful gaseous emissions from shampoos, perfumes, lotions, printer ink, cleaning solvents, glues, hand sanitizers, and other products that contain compounds refined from petroleum.
In fact, in urban areas, consumer products now cause as much air pollution, in the form of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as exhaust-spewing tailpipes, according to a new study published in Science.
“These volatile chemical products now contribute fully one-half of emitted VOCs in 33 industrialized cities,” write the study’s authors, scientists affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).
As vehicles get cleaner, it’s critical we turn attention to these less visible sources of pollution, notes one of the researchers, University of Colorado scientist Brian McDonald, Ph.D., “The stuff we use in our everyday lives can impact air pollution.”
That impact is huge — two to three times greater than previously estimated, according to the researchers. And the implications are greatest for workplaces, school campuses, and other enclosed environments where most of us spend our days.
Indoor concentrations of VOCs are often 10 times higher indoors than outdoors, the NOAA authors note.
You can’t see the gases emitted when custodians sanitize the cafeteria, the handyman repaints the conference room, or cologne-wearing staff walk the hallways. But the products they use contaminate the air just the same.
In fact, many of these products are designed to remain airborne. Whereas gas is store in airtight containers, “you wear perfume or use scented products so that you or your neighbor can enjoy the aroma,” notes atmospheric chemist Jessica Gilman, Ph.D., one of the NOAA researchers.
Even if the aromas released by sandalwood cologne and coconut-scented shampoos are pleasant (at least to some!), the potential health effects are decidedly not. Headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, skin irritation, fatigue, dizziness, blurry vision, and difficulty concentrating are just some of the symptoms linked to gases emitted from consumer products.
Products needn’t even be scented to trigger these symptoms. Deodorants, cosmetics, lotions, and cleaning supplies labeled “unscented” may actually contain chemicals used to mask the odor of other ingredients.
Among individuals, chemical sensitivity varies considerably. What is annoying to one person may be debilitating to another. But it’s clear that large segments of the population are affected, in one way or another, by VOC pollution.
More than 30% of Americans find scented products irritating, and 19% reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, according to two surveys published in the Journal of Environmental Health. In another survey, 30% of adults with asthma said air fresheners caused them breathing difficulties. For the most sensitive, even miniscule amounts of chemical vapors can trigger an asthma attack.
But damaging effects of indoor air pollution likely extend beyond the acute. Exposure to certain VOCs has been linked to lung disease, cancer, and neurological problems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A review published in The Lancet listed air pollution among the top five global mortality threats, designating “ambient particulate matter pollution” as the largest air pollution risk. As the NOAA scientists noted, VOCs wafting in the air can react to produce this damaging particulate matter.Given the documented links between VOCs and health problems, use of toxic consumer products is now considered a health and safety issue in the workplace.
Businesses, organizations, and schools are taking a variety of approaches to protect those who work indoors.
Worldwide, countless campuses, health centers, restaurants, auditoriums, and churches have banned scented products or have created “scent-free” sections. Some municipalities have banned chemical air fresheners in city-owned restrooms and workplaces and switched to using less toxic cleaning and maintenance products.
But these approaches, while certainly helpful, inevitably fall short — and sometimes provoke a backlash.
As one woman — a human resources professional and a “perfume nut”— blogged, the issue of whether to ban scents in the workplace “is a big conundrum and an absolute minefield for us HR people.” She asks: “Is this a case of the PC Police taking things one step too far? Where does it stop?”
But even if employers and schools could, without controversy, ban scented products, it’s impossible to outlaw every consumer product that emits VOCs. There are simply too many. And in addition to the products we know release toxic gases, countless others have yet to be identified.
A more practical response to the “big conundrum” faced by organizations that operate indoors: clean the air.
That’s right. We can’t rid the world of toxic products — at least not yet — but technology makes it possible to purge indoor air of the toxic particles these products emit.
Even better, the same purification devices that remove VOCs also remove bacteria, viruses, mold, and other air contaminants that make people sick.
Installing these devices is a lot simpler than convincing the HR department to ban perfume.